When her employer went through a merger, Shawanna Nelson, a college graduate, found herself out of a job with a young daughter to care for. Overqualified for entry-level jobs but unable to find a job within her field, the bills started piling up.
She started writing bad checks to pay for groceries, “and everything spiraled out of control,” she said.
Ultimately, Shawanna was sentenced to six years in the McPherson Unit in Arkansas in 2003 for credit card fraud and writing bad checks. She was six-and-a-half months pregnant when she was incarcerated.
Many women in facilities across the country give birth while behind bars. These experiences are typically traumatic, and Shawanna’s was no exception. Yet after everything she went through, she still decided to use her second chance to shine a light on one of the darkest criminal justice practices.
Shackled while in labor
After being in labor for 12 hours, Shawanna was transported Newport Hospital. There, she was promptly shackled to her bed. This inhumane practice is not uncommon across the country.
Shawanna’s experience was traumatic. Court documents say being shackled caused her “extreme mental anguish and pain, permanent hip injury, torn stomach muscles, and an umbilical hernia requiring surgical repair.”
These injuries, along with chronic hip pain as a result of the shackles, have life-long consequences. Shawanna has trouble playing with her children, has trouble sitting, standing and laying down on her left side for extended periods of time, and has been advised to not have any more children.
Because of good behavior, Shawanna was released after serving one year and three months. Instead of completely closing the book on this chapter of her life, she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2004 against the Arkansas Department of Corrections over how she was treated.
Not only did she want to use her second chance to fight back on behalf of herself, she also wanted to fight for other woman who would or could be subject to the same maltreatment.
Ultimately, the court decided Shawanna had failed to prove the policy was unconstitutional.
But she didn’t give up. The American Civil Liberties Union helped her petition the circuit court, which overturned the previous decision in 2009. The court found shackling Shawanna while pregnant violated her Eight Amendment protections from “cruel or unusual punishment.”
With her second chance, Shawanna was able to change the standard for prison policy, concerning the treatment of pregnant women.
“Second chances allow a person to be productive in society and be good citizens,” Shawanna said, “a chance to be a great parent and become involved in community action to continue to make a difference in the lives of others.”
Society is still learning about second chances
Shawanna has now been out of prison for 16 years — “without even a speeding ticket,” she said. But she is still facing barriers, unable to make full use of her second chance.
Even though 74 percent of managers and 84 percent of HR professionals nationwide said they were willing or open to hiring individuals with a criminal record, many employers have not embraced second-chance hiring practices.
“I have worked so hard to redeem myself in society. But the choices I made 16 years ago have had a lasting effect on my life. It has limited my goals and aspirations of the person that I could be,” she said. “However, I am going to continue to push forward to help others succeed and advocate for prison reform.”