Recollections of an American Childbirth in Prison

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Recollections of an American Childbirth in Prison

Dee Ann Newell, Founder, Arkansas Voices

Dee Ann Newell is the founder of Arkansas Voices—For the Children Left Behind and Soros Fellow, who works on behalf of children of incarcerated parents in Little Rock, Arkansas. Dee Ann is a 2003 PASS Award recipient and has a long history of working with NCCD. This post tells the story of one woman’s experience with the inhumane practice of shackling incarcerated women to their hospital beds during childbirth.

My friend and colleague, Shawanna Nelson Lumsey, is a smart, kind, twenty-eight year old woman of color. She spent 10 months in the Arkansas’ state prison system at the sole women’s unit at the time. Her crime was non-violent, a first-time offense. She had never used any sort of drugs or alcohol. Her crime involved fraud. Pregnant at the time of her sentencing, Shawanna delivered her 9+ pound son after four months in prison. With a B.S. in Economics, she had been attending graduate school part-time to receive her Master’s degree.

She was a beautiful pregnant woman, always smiling. She glowed. As a member of the Pre-Natal/Post-Partum class I had begun at the request of the warden, she stood out due to her kindness and her concern for all of the other women in the class. She had a daughter, and was already familiar with labor and delivery, so she helped me teach the labor and childbirth component of the class to women who typically had received no prenatal care, certainly no childbirth education, and in many cases, were unfamiliar with their own anatomies and were quite frightened.

In my first years of teaching the prison-based Pre-Natal/Post-Partum classes, 1998-2003, the mothers returned to our group after giving birth in deep and profound distress. No matter how hard we tried to prepare them for the heartache of leaving their babies at the hospital, their wounds were there. Post-partum depression was commonplace. They had usually described their medical care in a positive manner, especially the doctor, a woman in practice in the nearby town. However, a medical contract change had brought a new OB-GYN to perform the deliveries, and the women’s experiences began to change. Soon I was hearing about the lack of epidurals and the shackling of the women during labor and into delivery.

When Shawanna returned to class after giving birth with her description of three-point shackles throughout labor and delivery, and belly shackles during medical transport while she was in active labor, I was furious, calling legislators and others. Her pelvis seemed injured and there was concern about the well-being of her newborn son. She did not receive a follow-up medical check. Rather than complaining, as she had every right to do, she told us, “I am going to stop this inhumane practice.” She began to file grievances at the prison level, and contacted an attorney in Little Rock who was a lifelong friend of the family and a member of the ACLU.

Her lawsuit was filed while she was still in prison, a courageous act unto itself. When she was released  in 2004, she continued her suit against the director of the prison system and the guard who shackled her, a woman. The federal district court sent the case to the Eighth Circuit who ruled that the director and guard had immunity from suit. The ACLU national attorneys got involved and a full-panel of Eighth Circuit judges heard the case and retained the immunity for the director (he claimed he had no knowledge of the shackling), but ruled the guard had no immunity from suit. With this ruling, the case returned to the lower, federal court that held a jury trial comprised of all white members. They reached a verdict in July 2010, that the guard had wronged Shawanna by shackling her, and the jury awarded her just $1 in damages, the minimum allowed.

The day following the verdict, Shawanna learned that she had been fired from her job, a state agency, as a result of a criminal check, despite her two-year work history with excellent performance evaluations.

Currently she is searching for a job, an impossible task having just had her name on the front page of the statewide newspaper for two days in a row. Her two children, a 16-year old and a 6-year old, will start school again in two weeks. The full injustice of what she has endured is captured in the irony that the agency that fired her is mandated to serve re-entering prisoners.

For me, my speaking out meant a threatening phone call from the powers-that-be, and in 2006, I was no longer permitted to continue any of the programs that I had developed, without incident, for nearly 20 years.

When hypocrisy becomes the key component of injustice, and no one speaks out, all of our lives are tainted and sullied. The story is not over. Coercion in the delivery room is unacceptable under every standard of human rights, just not yet in some prisons in the US.

Dee Ann Newell can be reached at or 501-366-3647.

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