Megon Riedel was near the end of her third trimester of pregnancy when she was incarcerated at the Jackson County Detention Center in Missouri. A week later, she says she began having contractions. Now, three years has passed, and she is preparing to tell a courtroom that instead of getting the medical attention she needed, correctional staff repeatedly accused her of lying about being in labor. The day after her contractions began, Riedel was allegedly shackled, chained, and driven nearly 200 miles to a women's correctional facility across the state. For three and a half hours, she recalls pleading with officers to take her to the hospital. However, they refused to do so, she claims, even as she continued to bleed and vomit in the backseat of JCDC's transport van.
"It was the first time that I had been pregnant," Riedel tells Bustle. "I was scared, and I felt alone." Riedel says it wasn't until they finally arrived at the women's prison in Vandalia that she was rushed to a nearby hospital to deliver her son. He was born that same day.
This past October, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri, Riedel filed a federal lawsuit against Jackson County and three unnamed guards for cruel and unusual punishment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and failure to properly train Jackson County guards. The Jackson County Detention Center (JCDC), where Riedel was initially held, has declined to comment on the details of her ongoing case.
"Shackling and chaining a pregnant prisoner while she is in labor violates the Constitution, and transporting her across Missouri in shackles and chains is beyond callous," her attorney Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, wrote. As JCDC declined to respond to Riedel's claims, the following account is presented as it was told to Bustle by Riedel and her attorney.
Riedel says she endured an hour of labor pains and threatened to call her mom before correctional staff finally agreed to take her to the local hospital. According to the complaint filed by Riedel and her lawyers, upon her arrival at Truman Medical Center, doctors confirmed that she was in labor. They also warned correctional staff that her pregnancy was high-risk. However, even after her condition was verified by physicians, Riedel says a second nurse still accused her of lying about having contractions.
Around 5 a.m. the next morning, she says she was told to pack her belongings. Despite the doctors' warnings that her pregnancy was high-risk, Riedel was still taken to Vandalia. Her legal complaint says that she was contracting frequently and bleeding vaginally at this point but was still forced to walk without help to a transport van. The pain was so overwhelming, she says, that she actually had to stop every four or five steps to lean up against the wall. Yet she tells Bustle that a female guard still ordered her to "hurry up."
Right before she was put in the van, Riedel claims her hands and feet were shackled so tightly that if she had fallen, she doesn't think she would've been able to catch herself. On the ride to Vandalia, Riedel says she did her best to delay her son's delivery until she was taken to a hospital.
"I can remember trying to squeeze myself shut thinking that maybe that's going to keep him in there," she recalled. "And I begged them. I asked them, 'Please take me to the hospital.'"
Riedel says that when she finally arrived at the women's prison, the guards there immediately recognized that she needed medical attention. When her son was finally born at a nearby medical facility, she says his umbilical chord was wrapped around his neck three times and he wasn't breathing. Riedel believes that if her son had been born in the back of that transport van, he probably wouldn't have survived.
"I don't think I would have known what to do. I don't think he would have made it, and I don't even think they would have stopped if I'd started having him on the bus," she speculates.
So why was Riedel transferred that day? Financial concerns could be one reason. According to Rothert, when inmates give birth, it's often the correctional facility that's stuck paying their medical bills. That's a big expense for a small county jail. Rothert says he's received previous complaints from female prisoners who claim they were dropped off at state prisons in the final stages of their pregnancies.
Riedel says at one point during her three and a half hour ride, the speedometer read 90 mph. So if JCDC's guards were in fact rushing Riedel across Missouri so she could give birth at a state institution, that would suggest they were putting their own financial interests before the health of their inmates—a charge that Rothert and Riedel could only guess at.
This case is still in its early stages. But if Riedel wins, it would be just the latest example of how the correctional system, if left unchecked, can fail to help women when they need it most.
Missouri has zero state laws regulating the use of restraints on pregnant prisoners. This is despite the fact that the American Medical Association (AMA) has deemed the use of shackles during labor "medically hazardous." A 2010 report card titled "Mothers Behind Bars" gave Missouri a D for its shackling policies. (Unfortunately, a D was the average grade nationwide.)
A spokesman from the Missouri Department of Corrections told Bustle that once a prisoner has begun labor, she is supposed to be left unchained. Ultimately though, the decision is left up to individual officers, who are required to carry restraints, just in case. Even those questionable standards don't apply to county jails like the one where Riedel was being held. When asked whether it had any of its own shackling standards, JCDC vaguely told Bustle that their facility, "takes its responsibility to provide a safe environment for our inmates and detainees very seriously," and that it has, "many policies and procedures to ensure that safety."
Over the last several years, the shackling of pregnant prisoners has gained notoriety, thanks to vocal advocates like Amnesty International, the ACLU, and former inmates. The Rebecca Project for Human Rights and the National Women's Law Center have called for strict anti-shackling policies, and numerous health organizations and correctional associations have done the same. In 2008, the Bureau of Prisons effectively banned the use of shackles on pregnant inmates during labor and delivery.
Still, the practice has been frustratingly difficult to erase. That 2008 ban, while a major victory for advocates, only applies to federal prisons. And while 22 states and Washington D.C. have banned the shackling of prisoners during childbirth, that still leaves 28 states that have yet to follow suit. Even in states like New York that already prohibited shackling during childbirth, the practice still continues and inmates remain uninformed about their rights.
There is no current data on the number of pregnant prisoners in the United States, but we can make an educated guess. In 2004, a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that three or four percent of female prison inmates were pregnant when they were admitted. Based on those numbers, it's safe to say that thousands of women across the country were pregnant when they were put behind bars. That's a tiny sliver of the total prison population, but it's also a lot of women who rely on the correctional system to bring their children into this world safely.
In practice, whether those women get the care they need depends on the guards. JCDC is currently being investigated by the FBI for civil rights violations, and local authorities acknowledged four recent cases involving the "possible use of excessive force" against male prisoners. In one case, an inmate was hospitalized with a broken back, broken neck, two broken wrists, and a punctured lung.
While it's not a sufficient excuse, this apparent brutality may in part stem from the fact that Jackson County guards are overworked, underpaid, and inexperienced. Lieutenant Ron Bearce of JCDC told The Kansas City Star that it takes at least three years to fully develop as a correctional officer. However, due to the high turnover at JCDC, the average guard has only worked there two years or less. Clearly, there seems to be something wrong with the workplace culture at JCDC.
For a long time, women have been an afterthought in the prison system because they represent such a small minority of inmates. Granted, their numbers have grown rapidly in recent years. But even today, women make up merely 6.7 percent of the total federal prison population. Because of this, women's health issues are more likely to be downplayed or ignored by staff. To make matters worse, even outside of the American prison system, women's health concerns aren't always taken seriously. A study conducted by the University of Maryland School of Law titled, "The Girl Who Cried Pain," concluded that "women who seek help are less likely than men to be taken seriously when they report pain and are less likely to have their pain adequately treated."
Executive Director of the ACLU in Missouri, Jeffrey Mittman, says that it is not unusual for correctional staff to ignore a prisoner in medical distress. In July, an inmate named Sarah Lee Circle Bear, who was being held in a South Dakota jail, was in excruciating pain after an overdose of meth. Guards reportedly told her to "quit faking" and transferred her to a holding cell; she died the next day. An In These Times investigation into the mistreatment of pregnant women in prison found several women who were ignored when they requested medical attention. One woman's extreme pain was written off as morning sickness, when in fact it was a sign that her fetus had been dead for some time.
According to Rothert, guards aren't generally trained to recognize serious medical needs. When they are, their training is usually "one-size-fits-all," or unisex. However, the health concerns of female prisoners are usually quite different from those of male prisoners. Female inmates are more likely to suffer from a history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; and many female prisoners suffer from drug addiction as well.
"Women have different demands," Nawal Ammar, professor and dean at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who studied health care in women's prisons in Ohio, tells Bustle. "They bleed. They do things that men don't do. They have babies. They have more mental health issues. They interact with the world differently...[But] there's still a male inmate bias."
If Riedel wins her case, then Jackson County will be required to introduce better staff training programs. That would be a great start, but it's also crucial that legislators use their influence to enact state-wide laws, regulate staff training, and introduce standards on the shackling and transportation of pregnant inmates.
Riedel and her lawyers are well aware of the fact that broader change is needed to prevent other pregnant women from being mistreated in prison.
"We're bringing this case to address a larger problem," Rothert tells Bustle. "A lot of people will say, well that's awful what happened to Megon. And they're right. It is awful. But it shouldn't be surprising that this happened in a system that doesn't treat women right and doesn't treat people with serious medical needs right, either."