Immigrant Mom Juana Villegas, Shackled During Labor, Wins Lawsuit

Physicians have said that shackling pregnant moms during labor puts women and babies in danger. But only a handful of states agree.

By Thoai Lu May 02, 2011

A federal judge in Tennessee has ruled in favor of immigrant mother Juana Villegas, who was shackled during labor and after giving birth while being held in the custody of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, the Tennessean recently reported. U.S. District Court Judge William Haynes Jr. will set a hearing for damages against Metro government and the sheriff’s office in Villegas’ case.

Villegas was nine months pregnant when, on July 3, 2008, she was arrested and charged with careless driving and driving without vehicle insurance. She also didn’t have a driver’s license. Officials then realized Villegas had a previous deportation order to her native Mexico from 1996. Davidson County, where she was arrested, participates in the controversial program 287(g), which deputizes local cops to investigate the immigration status of people they’ve arrested. In an interview with Breakthrough, Villegas’ attorney Elliot Ozmet, explains the case:

This case is first of all an immigration case. But it didn’t start out that way. It started out as a simple traffic stop — she was stopped, she was given a ticket for careless driving that still has not been explained to Juana. But when she was asked for her driver’s license, she was not able to produce one. The preference for law enforcement for Tennessee is to give a person without a driver’s license a citation. In this particular case the officer decided to take Juana into custody despite the fact that she was 8 1/2 months pregnant and had three children with her in the car.

The sheriff’s office cited the danger of "illegal immigrants fleeing and engaging in illegal activities" to justify shackling Villegas to the bed.

"I was in jail when my water broke," Villegas recounted in Spanish. "They took me in an ambulance and cuffed my hands and feet. When we got to the hospital, they moved me to the bed and cuffed this hand and foot to the bed."

Villegas delivered the baby at 1 a.m. on July 6, 2008 and was separated from her newborn son for two days. She was not allowed to have a breast pump while in her cell, and says she was in great physical pain.

Judge Haynes, however, concluded that shackling Villegas during the final stages of her labor and subsequent recovery violated her civil rights. He said there is "no empirical support of those assertions that illegal aliens as a group commit crime that endangers the public safety."

In 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a statement supporting an end of shackling incarcerated women during birth. "Physical restraints have interfered with the ability of physicians to safely practice medicine by reducing their ability to access and evaluate the physical condition of the mother and fetus." That same year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, on average, five percent of women who enter state prisons are pregnant. 

There have been nationwide efforts to get rid of shackling incarcerated women while they’re in labor. In 2009, former New York Governor David Paterson signed a bill to outlaw the practice. Former California Governor Arnold Swarzenegger vetoed a similar measure. According to the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, so far only ten states have legislation regulating the use of restraints on pregnant women.

Because of the criticism that has stemmed from her case, the sheriff’s office has changed its policy such that "pregnant women are shackled only during transport if there is a credible threat that they may try to escape."

Villegas has won the case but faces the threat of deportation again, as the U.S. 6th District Court of Appeals has denied a request that would allow her to stay. Her lawyer, Elliott Ozmen, is pushing to stop her deportation.