A U.S. District Court judge ruled last week in favor of a woman who was shackled while giving birth at a Tennessee jail in 2008. Juana Villegas had been arrested and charged with careless driving and driving without insurance in July of 2008 when her immigration status showed that she had a prior deportation order to her native Mexico. She was taken into custody and went into labor two days later.
Villegas sued the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office after being shackled by the arms and legs throughout giving birth, including the final stages of labor and directly after. She was not allowed to have a breast pump or cream for lactating mothers in her cell, and was separated from her newborn son for two days. The judge ruled in her favor, saying that shackling Villega during the final stages of her labor violated her civil rights, and noting that she was “neither a risk of flight nor a danger to anyone.”
In their effort to combat the lawsuit, Davidson County sheriff’s office justified her shackling by citing testimony on the “danger of illegal immigrants fleeing and engaging in illegal activities.” Davidson County participates in a controversial program 278(g), which deputizes local police to investigate the immigration status of people they’ve arrested. Villegas’ attorney, Elliot Ozmet, said that typically when someone is unable to produce a driver’s license, they are given a citation, but in this particular case the officer decided to take her into custody.
“I was in jail when my water broke,” Villegas recalled. “They took me in an ambulance and cuffed my hands and feet. When we got to the hospital, they moved me to the bed and cuffed this hand and foot to the bed.” The medical staff requested that she not be restrained at all, warning that she may get blood clots from the leg irons, but the officers refused.
The National Women’s Law Center released a report in 2010 on the status of mothers in prison, and reported that 36 states fail to comprehensively limit, or limit at all, the use of restraints on pregnant women during transportation, delivery and postpartum recuperation. Only ten states have laws that address shackling. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention currently has no prohibitions on shackling pregnant detainees. Amnesty International and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights are leading nationwide efforts to end the practice of shackling pregnant women during labor.
Although Villegas has won her case, she has been denied a request to stay in the U.S. by the 6th Court of Appeals, so she once again faces the threat of deportation.