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Open Letter to the Sheriff’s Office on the Treatment of Juana Villegas De La Paz

August 7, 2008

In a thread at Political Salsa (the blog that first brought attention to the treatment of Juana), Davidson County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Karla Weikal is participating in the comments. The following is my comment to her there:

“We can argue all day long over what people think about the correctional treatment of a female in custody.”

Ms. Weikal,
I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong, but in coverage of this case I seem to have read a couple of statements from you that suggest that we should indeed be arguing about the treatment of pregnant women in custody, because lack of more general outrage is being used as justification for her treatment.

From the Tennessean:

“She also said Villegas’ case was not unusual. ‘People want to ignore the fact that we have 500 females incarcerated every day,’ she said. ‘Currently, there are 25 females who are pregnant in jail.’”

I for one do not want to ignore this fact, and do not believe that not being “unusual” is a legitimate justification for the shackling of pregnant women in labor. Labor is an extremely vulnerable time, and one in which being allowed a bit of movement often makes the process less painful for many women. I am also troubled by reports that the guard is reported to have removed her telephone line, denied her access to a breast pump, forced her to change clothes in his presence, and denied nurses’ request to allow her more freedom of movement for personal care.

I would like to hear a statement on whether these things are accurate. I am of the understanding that there have not been any documented instances of women attempting to escape during labor anywhere in the U.S., so I would also like to know why these measures have been implemented.

Regardless of the specifics of Ms. Villegas’s case, I believe women should be treated with dignity and appropriate care during this very vulnerable event, and it does not appear that this happened. I urge the department to reconsider its practices, and to address the assumed need for them.

If you haven’t heard much objection to these practices until now, it is likely because local citizens were not fully aware of them. There are local women I have spoken to recently who were shocked that this happens. However, there are national organizations working to end exactly this type of treatment. As Mack suggests, I find the “well, nobody cares about these other women” argument to be deflection rather than a legitimate rationale for current practices.

Just thought I’d share. The “if you don’t care about X, your thoughts on Y are irrelevant” framework is a familiar and tired argument – those making it often aren’t actually aware of or correct about their opponent’s thoughts or works on Y, and it suggests that if an individual is not working on every. single. issue. that they can be dismissed on a specific concern. I find it, quite frankly, total BS and a distraction. The Feminism 101 has a post related to this, FAQ: Why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important? – go have a read.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2008 8:32 am

    Imagine a woman from Brentwood traveling outside our borders, and committing some non-violent infraction that lands her in jail during her 9th month of pregnancy. She is shackled during delivery (or labor) and denied access to a phone. I’m pretty sure there would be calls to invade whatever country she was in from outraged Tennessee residents.

  2. August 7, 2008 8:39 am

    Mack, you know I don’t disagree with you.

  3. August 8, 2008 8:03 am

    Frankly I don’t care what crime you’ve committed or have been accused of committing. Any illness or medical event which involves hospitalisation, interaction with medical personnel and/or medication creates a scenario unlike anything else in life. It can be frightening and painful.

    Since “First do no harm” is, you know, such a big deal in the medical profession I think it’s important for any and all prisoners to be treated with the same care and concern as any other patient.

  4. bridgett permalink
    August 8, 2008 11:22 am

    Here, one must think like a police officer. You say “there have been no reported escape attempts, so why the shackling?” to which the police say “Well, yes, aren’t we effective? Our method clearly works.”

    As you know, the “why aren’t you complaining about X when Y is really more important” gets broken out when the respondent doesn’t want to talk about either X or Y and instead wants to put you on the defensive for having the temerity to object. It’s a PR strategy. They used to teach it in MBA classes; now, I just think it’s a free-range rhetorical device.

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  1. A Win for Pregnant Prisoners in Davidson County, TN « Women’s Health News

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