Shackled During Labor: My Experience

Taken from the May/June 2014 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

After reporting that I was in labor, I had to wait for the prison guards to relay that message to the “powers that be” in the prison, to be escorted to the prison clinic to be checked out by a nurse, for the nurse to confirm that I was indeed in labor, to wait for the ambulance’s arrival —all while being afraid that I could very well have my baby any moment, without an attending physician being present.

Before being transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma, my hands and feet were shackled to the ambulance bed. I was dressed in prison garb, shackled, in excruciating pain, and had no one to comfort me (the ambulance attendant and the prison guard only talked to me in terse tones), all of which exacerbated my fears and anxiety for both myself and my unborn child. When I arrived at the hospital, I was pretty far into labor and in excruciating pain, moaning, groaning, and intermittently yelling out in pain. I was not given any medication to relieve the pain, however, and the hospital staff handled me roughly and were rude and curt to me.

I remained shackled while the staff asked me many questions prior to admitting me to the hospital. When I got to the labor room, I thought there would be some reprieve from the shackles. On the contrary, only the leg shackles were removed in order that I could be examined; one of my wrists was shackled to the side of the bed. The humiliation of having the prison guard hover over me while I was exposed and being checked for dilation was more than words can ever describe.

Then, to my horror, the attending nurse forcefully covered my mouth with her hands for a very long time, after she had failed to get me to stop screaming. Mind you, I was in full labor even before I arrived at the hospital — and I had had no medication to help ease the pain and no comforting face or voice to help calm my mounting fears. The contractions were coming so fast and so hard that I literally thought I would die! After the nurse covered my mouth, and scowled at me like I was an annoying animal who needed to be put down, instead of a mother who was about to give birth, I lost all sense of dignity and self-respect. I felt like I was an animal giving birth in front of its human masters — a worthless piece of trash.

After the birth, I was able to spend some time with my baby until being discharged the next day. But, I remained shackled to the bed, either by one arm or one leg, and had to ask for the restraints to be removed in order to use the bathroom or shower. That experience was the most demoralizing event of my entire life.

In 2010, I told my story in order to change this practice in Washington State by passing HB 2747. This bill banned the use of restraints on female inmates who were in labor or post-partum recovery. With its success that year, Washington became the 7th state in the nation to pass anti-shackling legislation. Thanks to nationwide advocacy on this issue, as of 2014,18 states have laws prohibiting or restricting shackling pregnant prisoners

Now, I am an activist, a scholar, and a mother. I have a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Evergreen State College, in Olympia. I serve on several legislative Advisory Committees and on several community Boards and Committees that serve our most marginalized citizens. I am also King County’s Juvenile Court Parents-for-Parents Program Coordinator. I am a faithful member of a wonderful church, and I sing in our church choir. I consistently reach out to lost and broken souls in the community at large, helping them to overcome addictions and to lead healthy lives. There are many people in my community today who are living law-abiding, productive, and meaningful lives — thanks to the time, love, and direction I gave to them.

I am not a worthless piece of trash; I am a valuable asset to people, families, the community — and the world. I hope my story will help to curtail the disgraceful practice of shackling women during labor, and that this, in turn, will help improve the attitudes of prison guards and hospital staff toward women who give birth while incarcerated.