KARE 11, a Minneapolis CBS News affiliate, recently announced the conclusion of a year-and-a-half-long investigation into the possible illegal shackling of pregnant inmates in Minnesota jails.
The shocking results suggest that multiple prisons and even the state Department of Corrections (DOC) broke a 2014 anti-shackling law multiple times between 2015 and 2020. Some prisons illegally shackled pregnant and even laboring women who did not meet the 2014 law’s criterion for using restraints. In addition, some of those illegal occurrences were never reported to the state DOC for follow-up.
Tragically, KARE 11 found evidence that in several cases that were reported to the DOC, no further review or corrective action was taken.
According to official state records, just 15 pregnant inmates have been shackled since the anti-shackling law took effect in 2015, but interviews and research conducted by KARE 11 tell a different story — one which suggests that number may be a dramatic underestimate.
A major source for the investigation is Professor Rebecca Shlafer, a pediatrics professor at the University of Minnesota, who was instrumental in helping to pass the 2014 law and has continued to follow up with the Department of Corrections regarding illegal shackling ever since. Word of violations frequently reaches her through members of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which ensures state-mandated doula support for pregnant inmates throughout the labor and delivery process. Shlafer observed, “Based on (the DOC) reports, it suggests that this is happening very rarely. The problem is we don’t actually know how accurate those reports are.”
DOC Commissioner Paul Schell himself acknowledged that mistakes have been made in the treatment of pregnant inmates, as well as in recordkeeping about and disciplinary action necessitated by that treatment. He told KARE 11, “Can I tell you today that what’s reflected in that number is accurate across the state? I can’t. This is poor record-keeping, poor practices that I think have been addressed and are being addressed.”
In late October of this year, KARE 11 itself broke the story of a pregnant woman who, in 2020, was shackled during active labor following a misguided home invasion by police who mistakenly thought her husband had stolen a snowblower. Though no legal pretext was given for arresting Sara Hussein of Dayton, Minnesota, the woman was nonetheless jailed under a “36-hour probable cause” hold. When she went into labor while still in police custody, Hussein was shackled during transport to the hospital and during her time there before the 36-hour window expired. She later filed a federal lawsuit against the Hennepin County prison for the “brutal, sadistic, and unconscionable” treatment she received while in police custody. Adding insult to injury, the prison’s botched treatment and illegal shackling of Hussein was never reported to authorities for review.
The routine shackling of pregnant, even laboring, inmates has been roundly condemned by the American Medical Association, which considers it “a barbaric practice that needlessly inflicts excruciating pain and humiliation.” Still, Minnesota is likely far from alone in its practices. In fact, a likely reason for attention being drawn to this ongoing problem is the existence of other efforts in the state to ensure the humane treatment of pregnant and postpartum inmates.
In August, Live Action News reported that with the passage of the Healthy Start Act, many pregnant inmates in Minnesota would now be allowed “to serve their sentences in community alternatives, such as halfway houses or addiction rehabilitation centers.” Women who qualify for the Healthy Start program receive “treatment and programming in the placement location for the duration of their pregnancy and for up to one year post-birth to allow for the child to be near their mother for the first year of their lives.”
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