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Earlier this year, I had the privilege to participate in the "Rethinking Prisons" conference at Vanderbilt University. Being on that campus, I was inspired to tell the audience about the brave Nashville resident who stood up for her dignity and sued the county sheriff for shackling her during labor – even though taking such a public stance carried risks because of her immigration status.

Yesterday, Juana Villegas reached a final settlement with the Nashville and Davidson County government, which will pay almost half a million dollars to Villegas and her legal team.

In a surprise move, the federal judge overseeing the case recommended that Villegas be given a visa. The specific type of visa is usually reserved for victims of crimes – and reflects the fact that the local government violated Villegas’s civil rights by shackling and mistreating her when she was in custody.

Here is her story:

In 2008, Villegas was arrested in Nashville. She was pulled over and then arrested for driving without a license. Usually people get a citation instead of being arrested.

Villegas was nine months pregnant and went into labor after a couple days at the jail. Her legs were shackled together in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Because she was an undocumented immigrant, the jail treated her as a flight risk, with no regard to her physical condition or lack of prior involvement with the criminal justice system.

Her case became a referendum on shackling pregnant women and also on racial profiling, immigration, and a controversial program in which the Justice Department enlists local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

As a result of the publicity, the sheriff quickly adopted a default policy against shackling pregnant women unless a supervisor approves the shackling for specific reasons and then only with soft restraints.

Villegas won her lawsuit against the county: The court ruled that shackling Villegas during labor and again after giving birth amounted to unconstitutional interference with her medical care and subjected both Villegas and her fetus to medical risks.

The court also ruled that the use of restraints inflicted physical and mental suffering by subjecting her to the “terror that her baby might die inside of her body” while her legs were shackled together on the way to the hospital.

The sheriff appealed the decision and an appellate court sent the case back to district court for further proceedings, which were finally resolved yesterday.

In other developments, the county ended its involvement in immigration enforcement last year. The Obama Administration has been downsizing the initiative because of nationwide criticism.

Like so many others who fight back against mistreatment, Villegas was motivated by the prospect of making systemic changes. As she told a reporter for the New York Times, “I’m glad other women who go to the jail here will not suffer what I went through.”

The legislature in Tennessee, however, has not taken action to protect pregnant women from shackling anywhere else in the state.

Related news:

Nevada state officials are reportedly considering a settlement to end a lawsuit brought by a woman who was shackled in labor and immediately after giving birth in October 2011 – despite a state law prohibiting shackling unless a laboring woman is considered dangerous or a flight risk. The ACLU maintains that Valerie Nabors did not fit either of those criteria.

No doubt mindful of the lawsuit, the state Board of Prison Commissioners approved new regulations this week about the use of restraints on pregnant women.

This case reminds us that state governments need to take affirmative steps to enforce the laws they pass – to inform and train all personnel about the bans on using shackles and to require regular reporting and public reviews of any instances when officers decide to restrain pregnant women, as well as to provide a means of redress for those whose rights are violated.


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