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State

New Illinois law forbids shackling of pregnant women in custody

CHICAGO (MCT) — Jailers in Cook County, Ill., will no longer be allowed to shackle pregnant prisoners and those in postpartum recovery unless they are deemed to pose security or flight risks, under a new state law.

Despite a previous law banning the practice, pregnant women in Cook County custody continued to report being handcuffed by the wrist or shackled by the leg while they were giving birth.

In 1999, Illinois became the first state to ban the practice of shackling women who were in labor. That law banned restraints of any kind, including handcuffs and leg irons, used on women who were either in labor or being taken to the hospital to give birth.

But in recent years, women have come forward to say that shackles were not removed until the moment before they delivered their children, or were never removed at all. Roughly 80 women have joined a class-action suit against the Cook County sheriff’s office, saying they were restrained during labor, according to Thomas G. Morrissey, an attorney who, along with Kenneth N. Flaxman, is representing the women.

The new law, which takes effect June 1, was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on Friday.

Flaxman called the new law a “step forward and a step back.” He praised the new language that extended the ban on shackling so it applies to all pregnant women, regardless of whether they are in labor, but worried about how law enforcement would decide which prisoners are flight or security risks.

The effectiveness of the new law will depend, he said, “on how it is interpreted.”

“We’re very proud the governor expanded the rights of women who are pregnant and in correction facilities. However, we had a law on the books for 12 years that was very specific,” Morrissey said. That previous law, he said, “wasn’t enforced and it wasn’t followed.”

Frank Bilecki, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, said: “Sheriff Dart continues to have one of the most progressive policies when it comes to women detainees, and this includes those that are pregnant. The legislation that was signed today is a result of the sheriff’s actions and codified what is already the policy of the sheriff’s office.”

The new law will require the sheriff’s office to track every instance where restraints of pregnant prisoners are used because of security reasons, and to supply those numbers to the General Assembly and the governor’s office. That provision is critical, said Gail Smith, senior policy director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, who helped craft the legislation.

“We will know how often they invoke the exception,” she said. “I can guarantee you that we’ll be closely monitoring the annual report and assessing whether women’s safety is being protected.”

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