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Woodhull Testimony Florida House Bill 367 Shackling of Incarcerated Women During Labor, Delivery, & Postpartum Recovery


FEBRUARY 14, 2012

Support for HB 367 Prohibiting the use of restraints on prisoner known to be pregnant  during labor, delivery, & postpartum recovery

In Florida, pregnant women detained in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers are routinely restrained by their ankles and/or wrists when they are transported for medical care. They often remain shackled during labor, delivery, and the post-delivery recovery period for hours or even days, despite the presence of armed guards.  Not only have the Courts ruled that shackling is a violation of the United States Constitution (see case study), shackling is also a violation of International Human Rights Treaties and Conventions to which the United States is committed.

  • The United Nations Convention Against Torture Committee expressed concern in its concluding observations to the United States regarding the treatment of detained women in prisons and jails, including the practice of gender-based humiliation and incidents of shackling of women detainees during childbirth. The Committee recommended that the United States “adopt all appropriate measures to ensure that women in detention are treated in conformity with international standards.”
  • The Human Rights Council of the United Nations similarly issued concluding observations to the United States recommending that the government prohibit shackling of detained women during childbirth in order to be in compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Torture is a human rights violation, and the shackling of an incarcerated women in labor is torture.

Shackling is a violation of

  • Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the United States is a party, which states that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which provide that no one may be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,
  • Also to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the General Assembly on 9 December 1975 (resolution 3452 (XXX))

Shackling Case Study

Shawanna Nelson was six months pregnant with her second child when she was incarcerated for nonviolent offense by the Arkansas Department of Corrections in 2003. Nelson’s legs were shackled to the sides of a hospital bed for hours while she was in labor. She was unable to move her body to relieve pain due to the physical restraints. Nelson was briefly unshackled during childbirth, but was immediately re-shackled after delivering her son. She subsequently soiled her sheets with human waste, but was unable to abate the humiliating and unsterile condition due to her inability to move.

Advocates filed a suit against the state of Arkansas for violating Nelson’s constitutional Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment, arguing that Nelson’s shackling caused her both physical pain and emotional trauma and jeopardized the safety of the child she was about to deliver.

On October 2, 2009, the Eighth Circuit Appellate Court ruled that constitutional protections against shackling pregnant women during labor had been clearly established by the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower courts.2 Soon thereafter, on July 16, 2010, a jury found that Nelson’s Eighth Amendment rights had been violated.

1 Nelson v. Corr. Med. Serv., 583 F.3d 522, 4 (8th Cir. 2009).

2 Id. at 17-18.

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