Chained Childbirth


This is awful:

Latiana Walton went through most of her labor at Stroger Hospital with an arm and leg chained to her bed, she remembers.

As contractions surged through her body, she could not move or change position to relieve the pain. A Cook County correctional officer repeatedly refused to remove the restraints, she said, even when a doctor objected, saying that he was unable to administer an epidural.

"I actually said to the guard, 'Where am I going?' I'm crying. I'm in pain," recalled Walton, 26. "'I'm not going to get up and run out of the hospital.'"

On Aug. 27, 2008, Walton, who had been arrested after she missed a court date on a retail theft charge, became one of an estimated 50 women who give birth every year while in the custody of the Cook County Jail.

Shackling women during labor is illegal; Illinois became the first state to ban the practice in 1999, and nine other states have followed suit. But more than 20 former jail inmates, including Walton, have filed lawsuits since 2008 against the Cook County sheriff's office, which runs the jail, alleging that they were handcuffed by the wrist or shackled by the leg while giving birth. Most of these women, according to their attorney, had been arrested for nonviolent crimes and were awaiting trial…

Officials at the sheriff's office say their policy follows the law. A pregnant woman can be restrained, according to the policy, until a medical official confirms that she is, in fact, in labor. "When does 'labor' begin? Our officers aren't trained to know, the state law doesn't say, so we rely on medical personnel to advise us," Steve Patterson, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, wrote in an e-mail. "Once a medical person advises us someone is in labor, restraints of whatever sort are removed."

But the plaintiffs' attorney argues that restraints were, in his clients' cases, removed too late or not at all. He contends that sheriff's officials interpret "labor" as the moments immediately before birth, and that guards sometimes deny requests by doctors and nurses to remove the handcuffs and shackles. "When you talk to these women, they say, 'Yeah, when I'm delivering and I'm pushing, that's what they consider labor,'" said plaintiffs' attorney Thomas G. Morrissey. "They remain in shackles and handcuffs until the baby is about to be delivered."

At risk of getting overly high-minded here, this seems like the sort of thing that goes hand in hand with a generation of tough-on-crime talk, and a country willing to put 1 in 100 of its citizens behind bars. It all can have a dehumanizing effect. These aren't people first, they're criminals first. Clearly there's something larger at work when law enforcement officials see a woman in labor not as as a mother-to-be in need of medical attention, but an accused thief and flight risk in need of shackling right up until delivery.

The Cook County lawsuit echoes a story last November from Maricopa County, Arizona, where sheriff's deputies kept a suspected illegal immigrant shackled to her bed while she gave birth. And of course in Maricopa County, of all places, there's ample evidence that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies see immigrants as something less than human.