Undocumented Women in Custody Forced to Give Birth in Chains

The Huffington Post recently published an expose on the barbaric treatment of some undocumented women who are incarcerated while pregnant. Being shackled during childbirth is illegal in 14 states including Pennsylvania (except in cases where it is determined that the woman “represented a substantial risk of imminent flight” or “other extraordinary medical or security circumstances”) and The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy discourages the practice. However, women can “still legally be handcuffed to their hospital beds by state authorities in the 36 other states. Those women can also be denied the right to have a family member in the birthing room, or to hold their newborns for longer than 24 hours.” Several undocumented women have recently come forward with stories of being forced to give birth in chains while incarcerated.

While many immigration related violations are civil cases which would not entail incarceration, the ICE defines other immigration related violations (such as re-entry after deportation) as criminal offenses. Undocumented women who are apprehended for a non-violent immigration related criminal offense may be shackled and forced to remain so even during labor. Even though the ICE has a policy against shackling during labor, in 36 states imprisoned women are still at the mercy of the state correctional facility’s discretion as to whether or not they must be chained during childbirth.

Alma Chacon and Juana Villeges are two undocumented women whose experience of being dehumanized during, before, and after childbirth is indicative of how dangerous not having a state law mandating decent treatment of pregnant inmates can be.

Chacon was detained for a non-violent criminal offense and shackled to her hospital bed. Chacon was allegedly not allowed to nurse or hold her baby until she was released from immigration custody almost 70 days later when she gave birth in.

For Juana Villegas, going into labor while in prison meant that her ankles were cuffed together on the ride to the hospital, and that she was denied a breast pump by local authorities after she was given one by medical professionals. Without a breast pump, “she was in great pain” after she gave birth and had trouble sleeping in prison, [Elliott] Ozment, her attorney, said in a phone interview.

We have blogged before about the negative health implications of being chained during labor and the utter senselessness of forcing women to give birth in this inhumane way. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ oppose shackling during labor since this poses an increased risk of clotting due to the inability for the woman to properly position herself during labor, decreased blood flow to the fetus, interference with the mother’s ability to breastfeed her child after delivery, and delays that are presented from having to remove shackles before an emergency procedure. In addition to the health benefits of unshackling women before, during, and for a reasonable amount of time after labor, doing so presents no security risks. Women in labor are obviously a low-flight risk and no inmates in labor have ever attempted escape.

Shackling during labor is a cruel and inhumane practice to subject women to. Unfortunately, in 36 states no law prohibits this treatment and undocumented women are particularly vulnerable to being mistreated in this way. To learn more about the plight of pregnant undocumented women in America’s prisons, read the entire Huffington Post expose here.

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