Imagine Giving Birth While Shackled to a Bedpost
Can you picture it?
Neither can I. But for pregnant inmates in many states, this is how motherhood begins: with their legs shackled to metal hospital bedposts.
For Shawanna Lumsey, this isn’t an exercise in imagination, but in fact her experience when delivering her son, Jordan.
My name is Shawanna Lumsey and I was shackled when I gave birth to my son. I’ve made some mistakes in my life, but no expectant mother, no woman, no person should ever be treated the way I was.
Eight years ago, I was convicted of credit card fraud and received a six-year prison sentence. At the time, I was five months pregnant.
I vividly remember the day I went into labor. I was in my cell at the McPherson Unit in Newport, Arkansas. It was very early in the morning and my labor pains were very sharp. I contacted the guard and was given two Tylenol. Those two Tylenol were the only pain pills I ever got.
After some delay, I was taken to the hospital. The pains were so intense that I literally had to grab the wall to steady myself. I got to the van outside for my short drive to the hospital and that’s when the shackles were put on. At the hospital there was only one brief moment when they removed the shackles—when I put on my hospital gown. My ankles were shackled to the bed throughout my hard labor, and I was unable to readjust myself to lessen the pain. It was only when the doctor arrived, just moments before I delivered, that he ordered the shackles to be removed.
At a mere 123 pounds, I gave birth to a 9 pound, 7 ounce baby son, while shackled to my bed for most of the labor. My experience was horrible and continues to haunt me.
Six years ago, I filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas Department of Corrections on the grounds that shackling is unconstitutional. The case has been long and difficult, but a year ago a federal court ruled that shackling women during labor violates their civil rights. I’ll continue to speak out so that no woman, no matter what her life circumstance, has to endure the pain and trauma I have.
More women—two-thirds of whom are mothers— are behind bars today than at any other point in U.S. history as a result of mandatory sentencing for drug offenses. Federal and state correctional laws and regulations must ensure the humane treatment women like Shawanna. Policy makers’ failure to do so results in the neglect of pregnant women and mothers and unnecessary suffering for them and their children.
Today, the National Women’s Law Center and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights released the Mothers Behind Bars report, which explores the egregious practice of shackling women during childbirth and other important issues affecting pregnant and parenting women—the vast majority of whom are non-violent, first-time offenders. In the report, each state is graded on whether it has adequate policies—or any policies at all—on prenatal care, shackling, and family-based drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. Twenty states and the District of Columbia receive overall failing grades. The report also identifies steps that the federal government could take to improve conditions of confinement for women in federal facilities, including prisons and immigration detention.
Though we are encouraged that the Bureau of Prisons has taken action to prohibit shackling in federal prisons, only ten states have laws restricting the policy, and shackling is still permitted in Immigration Detention. On November 22, the Department of Justice is convening a symposium on shackling, but that’s not the only issue that mothers behind bars face. Join me and Shawanna in thanking Attorney General Eric Holder for hosting the shackling symposium. Also let him know that you support DOJ’s continued efforts to improve conditions of confinement for pregnant and parenting women in state prisons, jails, juvenile detention facilities and immigration detention, as well as access to family-based treatment as an alternative to costly incarceration.