Melissa Hall is a 29-year-old mother of four. Her third child, Jesus, is set apart from his sisters, not just for being the only boy in the family, but for being born while his mother was incarcerated at the Milwaukee County Jail four years ago.
Hall was arrested when she spent a drunken New Year’s Eve attacking her partner, Jesus Zepeda-Lopez, and destroying his mother’s property.
According to Cosmopolitan, she doesn’t remember a lot from that night, as she had been drinking heavily. She and Zepeda-Lopez were supposed to spend the evening together, and when she didn’t hear from him, she lost her temper.
Following that night, she also called Zepeda-Lopez and left voicemails for him, threatening to kill him and his brother. Hall was charged with misdemeanor battery, criminal damage to property, bail jumping, and unlawful use of a phone. She was convicted of criminal damage to property and unlawful use of a phone, for which she was required to serve probation.
But Hall failed to comply with the terms of her probation and, as a result, was ordered to serve a yearlong sentence. This order came when she was seven months pregnant.
She recalled to Cosmopolitan those first overwhelming thoughts that raced through her mind:
“My heart dropped to the ground. I can’t believe I’m going to be here this whole time. I’m not going to be able to see my son. I’m going to have my son in jail.”
But nothing could prepare her for when she’d be shackled to her hospital bed at St. Francis Hospital while giving birth.
When Hall first went into labor at the prison, she allegedly wasn’t taken to the hospital for immediate assistance but instead locked a small cell in the infirmary for five hours without medical care.
She told Cosmopolitan that she managed her anxiety by talking to her baby. She would tell him, “Stay there … just relax … don’t come out.”
Once Hall finally arrived at the hospital, guards bound her right wrist and her left ankle to her bed with a heavy metal cuff, severely restricting movement and causing her to lie flat on the cot while pushing during contractions.
The cuffs chafed against her skin, and because of the chains, doctors struggled to give her an epidural — it only ended up working on her left side from the waist down. When she needed to use the bathroom, the guards removed the chains, only to put different chains on her.
When she finally gave birth, Hall described how she had to strategically place a pillow behind her newborn to protect him from getting hurt by the chains.
The doctors who helped Hall deliver kept asking for the guards to remove the chains, but they refused. Hall was terrified that if something went wrong with the delivery, the chains would prevent both her and her baby from getting the help they needed.
According to the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women, which gathered information from an American Psychological Association report:
37 states and the District of Columbia, via statute or policy, prohibit or strictly limit shackling during, pregnancy, labor, childbirth, recovery, or a subset of these stages. The District of Columbia, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Marshalls Service have also enacted policy limiting the use of restraints during labor and delivery.
Hall filed a lawsuit and is hoping that it will help end the inhumane practice of shackling and help pregnant women in prisons be treated with the dignity they deserve. She said that 45 other women at her prison were also chained while giving birth.
The experience was frightening and something she wishes she could put behind her. Hall said she dreads the day when she may have to tell her son his birth story.
She told Cosmopolitan:
“It’s a memory that I have to keep forever, but it’s a memory I don’t want to tell my son.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is an advocate for implementing legislation that would protect the rights of pregnant women in prisons. He said:
“Everyone merits some type of mercy. We may go to prison. We may have to serve a sentence. We may have to pay a price for our crime. But we don’t surrender our humanity.”