Nov 04, 2009

A New Meaning for "Prison Labor"

I never realized how hard it could be for prisoners to give birth until I read the decision in the case of Nelson v. Correctional Medical Services, (8th Cir., October 2009).  A very pregnant Nelson was in an Arkansas prison, doing time for a non-violent crime.  When Nelson went into labor she was taken to a nearby hospital to give birth. A correctional officer who accompanied Nelson to the hospital repeatedly shackled Nelson's legs to the sides of her bed during labor.  The officer removed the shackles only when the nurses needed to check on Nelson's readiness to deliver, and then immediately replaced them.  The officer removed the shackles for good only after Nelson went into the delivery room.

Nelson is suing the correctional officer for a variety of injuries that she claims resulted from the constant shackling.  The injuries allegedly include a permanent hip injury, torn muscles and a hernia, and lots of unnecessary pain.  The correctional officer claimed "immunity from suit," arguing that Nelson had no right to sue her because she was carrying out her official duties.  The Court decided that the officer was not immune from suit, because she should have known that her actions constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

This was an "en banc" decision, meaning that numerous 8th Circuit federal court judges participated in the decision.  Amazingly to me, 5 judges dissented from the result and argued that the correctional officer was immune from suit.  Their reasoning was that shackling women during labor was such a widespread and routine practice that the correctional officer couldn't have realized that she was doing anything wrong.

Can it possibly be true that non-violent women in labor are routinely shackled to hospital beds?  Are pregnant women in labor really flight risks?  Strnagely enough, I can't recall ever seeing a woman who is just about to give birth racing down the street with a prison guard giving chase.  Surely the correctional officer could have thought of a better way to keep watch on Nelson duirng labor.  The correctional officer's actions caused needless suffering, and she should have to compensate Nelson for the harms she caused.