Pregnant inmates won’t be shackled under new policy

Inmates at any stage of pregnancy, labor or delivery, no longer will be restrained in Davidson County starting Sept. 1, with a few exceptions.

Sheriff Daron Hall announced the changes this week, calling them radical and dramatic. He said pregnant inmates would be restrained during trips to the hospital or court if there were credible information they might try to escape or if they presented a danger to themselves or others.

The change comes nearly two months after Juana Villegas, an illegal immigrant who was nine months pregnant, was arrested on careless driving charges and detained at the Davidson County jail. Villegas, from Mexico, said she was handcuffed and shackled during transport to the hospital and had one leg shackled to the bed for a portion of her labor.

The sheriff confirmed her treatment was in line with the old policy because her immigration status made her a medium-security inmate; those inmates are restrained regardless of gender or pregnancy.

Sheila Dauer, director of the women’s rights program at Amnesty International USA, said the international standard is that prisoners should be restrained only if there’s a danger of escape.

“That seems pretty unlikely, especially if this is an inmate in labor,” she said. “That’s generally a pretty painful and engrossing experience.”

A judge dismissed Villegas’ careless driving charge on a technicality. Her case had drawn international media attention.

“When you boil this situation down from a correction standpoint, it’s not about immigration and it’s not about us,” Hall said. “It’s about how do we ensure that a person is going to be able to go through that experience and be sensitive to that experience and attend to our duty. It is my opinion that … we were doing a little more than may have been necessary in every case.”

It’s a nationwide issue

One of Villegas’ attorneys, Elliott Ozment, said the change sounds like a good idea, but he wants to see the written policy.

For at least the last 14 years — the period in which the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office has had written policies and procedures in place — the Davidson County jail has restrained pregnant women when transporting them to court or to the hospital for medical care or delivery.

Hall declined to specify the department’s policy on guards standing inside or outside the room when pregnant inmates are in labor, citing concerns about security. He did say that at least one guard remains at the hospital with an inmate, and this portion of the jail’s policy will not change.

The change “puts the department out front” on an issue that jailing agencies across the country are discussing, Hall said. Hall is president-elect of the American Correctional Association, a Virginia-based trade group with about 19,000 members. The association recommends that jailing agencies consider the “age, gender, health and mental health
status” of inmates in restraining them, and use the least restrictive and harmful method.

At least 38 states have policies allowing for some restraint at various stages of pregnancy or delivery.

In a typical week, Davidson County has about 25 pregnant inmates in custody, Hall said. The Tennessee Department of Corrections had 13 pregnant women in custody Tuesday.



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