She Knew She’d Deliver Her Son While She Was in Jail. She Didn’t Expect to Do It in Chains
Melissa Hall couldn’t hold her partner’s hand, so, as she wheezed through painful contractions and obeyed the nurse’s directives to push, push, push, she squeezed the chain shackling her to the hospital bed.
When Hall, then 25, went into labor in April 2013, she was two months into a year-long sentence at the Milwaukee County Jail. In her delivery room at St. Francis Hospital, a heavy manacle around her right wrist kept her fastened to the bed. There was less than a foot of give, severely limiting her movement. A cuff on her left ankle — heavy, metal, tight — kept her leg bound straight. Both cuffs dug into her flesh.
The chains made it difficult to administer the epidural. It worked on only part of her body, leaving her numb from the waist down on her left side while her right side blazed with pain. She couldn’t scoot back on the bed, so she had to lie flat while she pushed. Throughout the three hours she was in labor, whenever she had to go to the bathroom, armed guards wrapped another chain around her small frame. That one rested on her belly.
And when Hall held her baby boy, Jesus, for the first time, and looked into his brown eyes, she had to put a pillow between his tiny body and the crook of her arm so he wouldn’t get hit by her chains.
When Hall talks through these allegations with me, in July, it’s been four months since she sued the county of Milwaukee — as well as its former sheriff, Trump-loving incendiary David Clarke, in his capacity as the jail’s top law enforcement official — claiming that her rights were violated when she was shackled for the two days she spent in the hospital. The fight is playing out at the federal level, too: In July, Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Dick Durbin introduced legislation that would ban the shackling of pregnant women in federal prisons. But thousands of jails and prisons across the country are run by states, which have their own laws around shackling — if they have any at all.
Since 1999, 22 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation that limits the use of restraints on pregnant women behind bars. Those state laws, however, vary widely, and even in states that have these laws, there’s no guarantee they will be followed. Thirteen years after Illinois became the first state to pass a law restricting shackling, the state’s Cook County Jail in 2012 agreed to pay $4.1 million to settle claims brought by 80 women who said they’d been shackled while pregnant or in labor. And a 2015 report from the Correctional Association of New York, a prison watchdog nonprofit, revealed that of the 27 women they interviewed who had given birth in New York prisons since the state passed its shackling law in 2009, 23 said they were shackled during labor or delivery.
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