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N.J. county settles case for $750K after woman says she was shackled during labor

A federal lawsuit alleged that county officers and supervisors shackled the woman’s wrists, ankles and waist during prenatal visits, and during labor and childbirth


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By Joe Atmonavage

MIDDLESEX COUNTY, N.J. — A lawsuit filed by a woman incarcerated at a New Jersey jail, who alleged authorities shackled her during her pregnancy and throughout labor and delivery, settled for $750,000 earlier this month, according to the woman’s attorneys.

The settlement comes after the woman, identified as “Jane Doe,” filed a federal lawsuit in July 2020. She alleged that while pregnant and incarcerated at Middlesex County Jail in 2018 on non-violent drug charges, county officers and supervisors routinely shackled her wrists, ankles, and waist during prenatal visits, as she was transported to the hospital and during labor and childbirth.

The woman died during litigation from causes unrelated to the case, but her family continued the lawsuit, hoping to inform “pregnant women of their rights.”

“She wanted to bring attention to the horrific harm and injustices that she endured and that so many like her continue to endure,” her unnamed parents said in a statement. “We hope this case has served as a wakeup call to Middlesex County and to law enforcement agencies around the country. They should immediately reform their policies and respect the humanity of the people in their custody.”

Kimberly Burnett, the Middlesex County spokeswoman, said the county and its insurance company would pay the settlement.. The county did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement agreement, finalized on Sept. 7, though Burnett said it has implemented updated guidelines “further limiting the use of restraints on pregnant inmates.”

According to the American Medical Association, shackling pregnant inmates during labor has long been condemned by correctional and medical professionals as it increases the potential for harm to the woman and baby. The New Jersey Department of Corrections adopted new regulations in 2017 that prohibited shackling pregnant inmates, though it did not become a state law until Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act in 2020.

Attorneys Katie Rosenfeld and Lawrence Lustberg represented the woman.

Rosenfeld said the settlement is significant because it “shows the gravity of what was done” to the woman during pregnancy.

“This was a very extreme and terrible violation of our client’s rights. I am glad that is being recognized,” she said. “This settlement is an important step in ending shackling of pregnant women.”

The lengthy lawsuit filed against the county, its jail, the sheriff’s office and the officers who allegedly shackled the woman includes allegations of deliberate indifference to serious medical needs, subjecting her to dangerous and inhumane confinement and excessive force.

According to the lawsuit the woman, 30, was four months pregnant when she was remanded to the Middlesex County jail following a substance abuse relapse in a drug court program, and subjected to “unnecessary and barbaric practice” of shackling pregnant women.

As she was taken to the hospital after her water broke in July 2018, the suit alleges officers handcuffed her and prohibited her from calling her family.

In addition, the suit charged that the woman was trapped on her back during labor and prevented from turning on her side to help manage labor pain because her ankle was shackled to her bed. She allegedly remained shackled for the majority of her 12-hour labor, the lawsuit says.

The woman claimed that she constantly asked for the shackles to be removed and for her family to be alerted that she was in the hospital, but jail officers refused. At one point, a nurse asked if the woman’s shackling was necessary, according to the lawsuit, but one of the officers allegedly said he was following “protocol.”

Officers also initially refused to remove the ankle restraint when she received an epidural, but they eventually took it off briefly so it could be administered, according to the lawsuit. Afterward, officers immediately put the restraint back on even though the injection diminished her ability to walk, according to the lawsuit.

As hospital staff wheeled her to the operating room for an emergency C-section, the officers did not remove the ankle restraint until right before she delivered the baby. The woman gave birth to a healthy boy on July 12, 2018, but the lawsuit says the poor treatment clouded what should have been a special moment.

“When medical personnel handed [the woman] her baby, in what should have been a purely joyous moment, [she] cried because she was alone, humiliated, and shackled to a bed,” the lawsuit says.

In the postpartum room, as she recovered and bonded with her newborn, the officers continued to restrain her, according to the lawsuit.

The case was settled on behalf of the woman’s estate and her son, now 4 years old.

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