This case is pretty horrific. You can see more about Nelson’s story in the RH Reality Check video above. More info:
On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit (the federal level appellate court that reviews decisions from federal district courts in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, and Arkansas) issued the long-awaited decision in Nelson v. Norris. In this case, Shawanna Nelson argued that being forced to go through the final stages of labor with both legs shackled to her hospital bed was cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. She argued that she should be allowed to sue the director of the prison and the guard who repeatedly re-shackled her legs to the bed. Ms. Nelson, an African-American woman, was incarcerated for non-violent offenses of credit card fraud and “hot checks.”
The idea of shackling any person during labor is abominable, but in this case the one argument for the practice is bunk. The only argument I can think of (which I definitely don’t agree with) is that an incarcerated person could be “dangerous” and therefore need to be restrained, even while giving birth. It’s ludicrous for even the most “violent” of criminals, let alone a woman like Nelson, who was incarcerated for CREDIT CARD FRAUD. Absurd.
Luckily, she won her case this week. Unfortunately, the case wasn’t even about the practice of shackling, but about her right to sue the guard. Legal craziness.
In this historic federal court decision, the Court held that the guard was not immune from (protected from) suit because it has been clearly established by the decisions of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts that shackling pregnant women in labor violates that 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court suggested that the corrections officers should have known that the medical risks of shackling were “obvious” and that “the shackles interfered with Nelson’s medical care, could be an obstacle in the event of a medical emergency, and caused unnecessary suffering at a time when Nelson would have likely been physically unable to flee because of the pain she was undergoing and the powerful contractions she was experiencing as her body worked to give birth.”
It’s a big win, giving both incarcerated women a vehicle through which they can fight back against these policies. But it was a struggle, which you can read more about on the NAPW release.
That this decision is “historic,” and that five of the eleven circuit court judges dissented, makes clear both how far we have come and how far we still have to go to ensure the civil and human rights of all pregnant women (the dissent in Friday’s opinion saw no “clearly established” constitutional violations in shackling Ms. Nelson during labor.)