Hard Labor Gets a New Meaning?

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on June 29, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Shackling Pregnant Inmates Draws Lawsuits

Former Washington state prison inmate Casandra Brawley had to go through tough labor while serving her prison time back in 2007, but it had nothing to do with her sentence. No, according to a lawsuit filed last week, Brawley was actually nine months pregnant during her 14-month stay in prison (she has a felony drug and theft record) when she went into labor. One might think that a nine-month pregnant inmate in the middle of active labor is not exactly the greatest flight risk, but Washington correctional authorities might have disagreed ... at least back then anyway.

After Brawley went into labor during dinner, she alleges she not only got shackled for the ride to the hospital, but then was shackled to her hospital bed even after receiving her epidural. For anyone unfamiliar with epidurals (not that I have been on the receiving-end) the traditional sort tends to anesthetize the lower body, which might make it a bit of a challenge to walk, much less run away. Brawley herself simply noted, "I thought it was kind of strange because I couldn't feel my feet".

It ended up being an emergency cesarean section that finally got Casandra unshackled. A doctor insisted that she not be shackled for that procedure, but not to worry, the restraints came right back on during her bed rest following delivery. As noted above, Seattle correctional authorities now face a lawsuit over their actions in Brawley's case. It should be noted that the state correctional agency's policy "now bans restraining inmates during 'labor or delivery'". A report on a similar case out of Chicago earlier this month, as well as an opinion letter from the county sheriff in support of that policy, provides some good information and rationales on the issues facing both inmates and correctional facilities.

Although it's not entirely clear from the story, the Seattle lawsuit may primarily target the state Department of Corrections' shackling practices. Since there is no state law banning the practice of shackling inmates during labor, perhaps the suit wants to blaze the trail of establishing that it constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment".

Cruel and unusual punishment is not something with a hard, universal definition. But generally, when challenging conditions of confinement, such as a corrections institution's procedure for providing food or medical services, a prisoner usually must show that the institution's officials or officers acted with "deliberate indifference" to the prisoner's constitutional rights. This requires them to show that:

1) An institution's employees were aware of some danger or risk of harm to an inmate; and

2) The employees chose not to take any steps to remedy the problem; and

3) As a result, the inmate's fundamental rights were violated...

Inmate lawsuits against correctional authorities are certainly not rare, and the "deliberate indifference" standard is actually a pretty tough one to meet. Of course, had any harm come to the baby (who is happily reported to be healthy), other claims could have arisen, including a governmental tort claim for that injury.

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