A federal judge on Tuesday granted preliminary approval to a $4.1 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of a group of female detainees at the Cook County Jail who claimed they were shackled while they were pregnant and in labor, despite a state law banning the practice.
Unless objections are raised, roughly 80 female plaintiffs will each get an average of $35,000. But the more important victory, said plaintiff's attorney Thomas Morrissey, was the fact that "we actually stopped the practice" of shackling pregnant detainees in Cook County.
Since the civil rights suit was filed, he said, "the county and sheriff have moved toward a more humane method of handling women who are pregnant and in labor. And I think this settlement fairly compensates the women for the past injuries that they suffered."
The settlement, given preliminary approval by U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve, caps a long debate around the issue of shackling pregnant detainees and comes after years in which the Cook County sheriff's office, which runs the jail, has gradually relaxed its regulations.
The sheriff's office said it agreed to settle for expediency's sake and that the move was in no way an admission of wrongdoing.
"This settlement is probably the most fair and efficient way to end this lawsuit and to prevent further cost to taxpayers. The Cook County sheriff's office strictly prohibits the use of security restraints on pregnant women in custody absent of unusual circumstances," said Frank Bilecki, spokesman for the office.
In 1999, Illinois became the first state in the nation to ban the practice of shackling female inmates who were in labor or who were being taken to a hospital to deliver a child.
But in recent years, women came forward to say that shackles were not removed until the moment before they delivered or were not removed at all. In some cases, women said, guards ignored requests by medical personnel to remove restraints. The women who sued alleged they were restrained during births between September 2007 and June 2010.
Handcuffs, shackles and belly chains that circle the waist and attach to other restraints were used on pregnant detainees at the Cook County Jail until April 2010, when a policy change dictated that only handcuffs be used. In February 2011, the policy changed again, this time dictating that no restraints should be used on pregnant women, unless they posed a security or flight risk.
Advocates for incarcerated women praised Tuesday's settlement. But they said more needs to be done to protect pregnant inmates in state prisons and county jails.
In January, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law that banned the use of shackles on pregnant detainees, except for those who pose a flight or security risk. But that law applies only to detainees in Cook County.
"We're very pleased that Sheriff (Tom) Dart has implemented stronger protections for pregnant women," said Gail Smith, senior policy director at Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. "We look forward to a day that women throughout Illinois will have similar protections."
Tuesday's settlement includes a provision that will set up a fund to provide job, educational and family counseling for the women involved in the suit.
"Most of the women realize that they have issues that caused them to be incarcerated in the first place," said Morrissey, who handled the case with attorney Kenneth Flaxman. "This (settlement) gives them a chance to chart a new course in life. Not only will they have some money, they'll have some assistance in dealing with the issues in their lives."