Pregnant and Shackled: Hard Labor for Arizona's Immigrants
PHOENIX, Ariz.-- Miriam Mendiola-Martinez, an undocumented immigrant charged with using someone else’s identity to work, gave birth to a boy on Dec. 21 at Maricopa Medical Center. After her C-section, she was shackled for two days to her hospital bed. She was not allowed to nurse her baby. And when guards walked her out of the hospital in shackles, she had no idea what officials had done with her child.
Like Mendiola-Martinez, pregnant inmates in Maricopa County Jail are routinely denied bond because they are undocumented immigrants. That means they can’t get out of jail for their childbirth, even if they are awaiting trial for a minor offense.
In some cases, undocumented immigrants are shackled as they are transported to the jail-contracted hospital, and shackled during and after childbirth.
Hospital authorities don't control this practice and medical personnel involved in these cases declined to be interviewed.
All hospitalized inmates are treated in the same manner as Mendiola-Martinez, according to Lt. Brain Lee, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. He said she had a “soft restraint” attached on one leg to her bed to prevent escape.
That soft restraint was a 12-foot-long chain.
“I could barely walk, I don’t think I could have escaped or even dared to run. I don’t think there was a need for them to do that,” said 34-year-old Mendiola-Martinez.
She says she was shackled during the two last months of her pregnancy too. Every time she had a pre-natal appointment, she waited in a small un-ventilated room with 20 other women. She had to sit in the floor. The chains were heavy and hurt her waist. Mendiola-Martinez often wept. She feared that her sadness could hurt the baby.
Mendiola’s story would have been different if she hadn’t been undocumented. She would have been released on bond before her baby was born because she had committed a non-violent crime, according to David Black, a criminal defense attorney who took her case pro-bono.
But in November 2006, Arizona voters approved a law that denies undocumented immigrants the right to post bail. Proposition 100 was authored by Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, as a way to keep undocumented immigrants who had been charged with “serious crimes” from being released.
The Arizona legislature included among those accusations minor offenses like possession of false documents, which undocumented immigrants frequently use to obtain employment.
The law, which is unique in the nation, is being challenged in the U.S. District Court of Arizona by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on the basis that it violates the Constitution by unjustly denying a select group of people a fair hearing. The lawsuit, however, doesn’t include the cases of pregnant women.
“I think Prop. 100 puts migrant women at a disadvantage and treats them unfairly,” said Bob McWhirter, a senior attorney with the Maricopa Legal Defender’s office.
About 1,500 pregnant women come through the Maricopa County Estrella jail every year. In 2009, 35 of them gave birth while in custody, according to Maricopa Medical Center records. More than 70 percent of the women detained in Maricopa County jails are accused of non-violent crimes and haven’t been sentenced yet. About 11 percent of them are undocumented immigrants. Health and county authorities say they don’t keep records on the immigration status or ethnicity of the women who give birth.
In October 2008, a federal judge ruled that conditions at the Maricopa County Jail, overseen by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, were unconstitutional and jeopardized the health and safety of the prisoners. The judge ordered jail officials to ensure that detainees received proper medical care, medicine and food that complied with federal standards. That same year, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care said the county’s jails did not comply with federal standards due to their failure to submit reports on jail conditions.
More Shackling Cases
Although Mendiola-Martinez’s story is not unique, it is difficult to track how many other women have shared her experience because most of them have been deported. Yet other detainees attest to the poor treatment of pregnant immigrants inside the county jails.
In October 2008, Alma Chacón, an undocumented immigrant arrested during a traffic stop for having outstanding unpaid tickets, delivered her baby in a “forensic restraint,” according to hospital records. Chacón said detention officers shackled her hands and legs during childbirth. She couldn’t nurse or hold her baby until she was released from immigration custody almost 70 days later.
Chacón’s case caught the attention of the federal Department of Justice, which is currently conducting a civil rights investigation into Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office.
The sheriff’s office says it doesn’t have a policy regarding the shackling of pregnant women. Spokesperson Aaron Douglas said they had no intention of changing the practice. But when questioned directly by New America Media about these cases, Arpaio said that everything was done “legally.” Yet, he added, he may consider reviewing the practice.
Still, critics point out that pregnant inmates who have been sentenced to state prison are treated better than inmates who are awaiting their sentencing in Maricopa County jails.
The Arizona Department of Corrections, which oversees state prison inmates, initiated a policy in 2003 that states: “A pregnant women will not be restrained in any manner while in labor, while giving birth, or during the postpartum recovery period.”
In 2008, the Federal Bureau of Prisons barred the shackling of pregnant inmates in federal prisons except when it was necessary for security concerns. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) doesn’t have a specific policy prohibiting their use. But advocates at the Rebecca Project, which is part of a national anti-shackling coalition, said they are in conversation with ICE to put regulations in place.
The practice of shackling women during childbirth is frowned upon by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. They say that shackling women during labor, delivery and post-partum is dangerous to a woman’s health and that of her unborn child.
Maricopa County is not unique in the practice of shackling pregnant women. Only six states in the nation have laws regulating the use of restraints on pregnant inmates: California, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Texas and Vermont.
Advocates are hoping to include Arizona on the list.
Voces por la Vida, a pro-life group in Phoenix directed by Rosie Villegas-Smith, is leading the charge for anti-shackling legislation.
“Undocumented women are the most vulnerable here because they don’t have a right to be released on bond,” she said.
Villegas-Smith says Arizona lawmakers are endangering the health of women and children in the name of fighting illegal immigration.
“I think a distinction has to be made and some humanity brought into Maricopa County laws, to allow [undocumented] nursing mothers and pregnant women to have their children outside of detention,” said Delia Salvatierra, Mendiola’s immigration attorney.
When contacted by New America Media, Rep. Martha Garcia, D-Phoenix, said she would try to introduce a bill to ban the use of shackling.
“My main concern is that women are traumatized by being shackled and what this does to their babies, too,” said the legislator, who is involved in the public health outreach program Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies.
“It makes me really angry that this is happening in the state of Arizona, because I believe the treatment of immigrants is worse here than anywhere else,” Garcia added.
The issue will be hard to push in the Arizona state legislature. Over the last five years, conservative Republicans have supported a series of anti-immigrant laws, aimed at creating a hostile environment in the state to push migrants out.
The most recently enacted law, House Bill 2008, requires state employees to report immigrants who apply for public benefits to ICE. The law, sponsored by Republican leadership as part of a special session budget package, is causing pregnant immigrant women to be afraid of requesting free pre-natal services and health care.
On Dec. 24, the date of her sentencing, Mendiola-Martinez was brought into the courtroom in a wheel chair, her hands and legs shackled.
“It was never my intention to hurt the victim. Please forgive me and let me go back to my children,” she told the judge. She was sentenced to time served and two years of probation. ICE didn’t take her into custody after her release from jail for “humanitarian reasons,” according to Vincent Piccard, a spokesperson for that agency.
Mendiola-Martinez was able to hold her baby again on Christmas Day. She takes joy in being with him and smiles when she watches him sleep. Secretly, though, she searches his face for any sign that her depression in jail might have had a negative effect on him while he was in her womb. Her children are U.S. citizens, but her future in the country where she’s lived for the past 15 years is still uncertain.
“I wish they would change things,” she said of current immigration laws. “Because when they do this to us, they do it to our children.”