U.S. states are rapidly removing Confederate statues, symbols of racial oppression. But there is another holdover from slavery that is prevalent in our society today — the routine use of shackling persons using handcuffs, leg irons and other hardware to confine individuals in the justice system.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to view a felony appellate courtroom in Casablanca, Morocco. These were appeals by people imprisoned for felony offenses who were asking the court to reduce their sentences. The people who were appealing — appellants — were brought in from prison and sat on benches behind a wooden screen. Their families sat on the other side of the court. One by one, the appellants were led to the front of the courtroom and directly addressed the judges, standing with dignity next to their lawyers.
What was remarkable was the fact that every person who stepped up to appeal their sentence was dressed in street clothes and unshackled. They stood respectfully before the appellate justices and were free to consult with their lawyers without the degradation of handcuffs, of leg irons, of belly chains and of prison uniforms.
The court resembled a U.S. traffic or civil court — not a felony criminal court.
The lack of prison uniforms and shackles dramatically changed the tone of the proceedings, serving as a reminder of the essential dignity of each of the persons appealing their sentence.
We observed a case of a young man in his early 20s appealing a 10-year sentence in a drug case. He was free to confer with his lawyer and to respond to questions by the court, without the interference of shackles on his hands or legs. The fact that he wore street clothes, not a prison uniform, served as an additional equalizer. A person who appears respectful and dignified in street clothes standing freely before the court seems a more likely candidate for early release from prison than a person in a prison uniform and shackled. The court subsequently reduced his sentence to four years.
In the United States, even children who are accused of a crime and confined in detention/prison appear in court in prison clothing and shackled with handcuffs. Leg irons and belly chains are frequently used along with handcuffs. Shackles are used in court from the first moment of the case — even before the trial and well before sentencing and appeal. A campaign by the National Juvenile Defender Center has convinced several states, including Illinois, to ban the use of handcuffs and shackles on children in courtrooms — but these instruments of human degradation are still used to transport children from detention to court.
Corporations that manufacture the hardware have convinced U.S. justice system officials that shackling individuals is essential for secure courtrooms and safe transport. A few decades ago, handcuffs alone were enough — but a consumer market was then developed for leg irons and belly chains and states rushed to invest in the “necessary” hardware. Shackling human beings is less than first world — and the experience in the Morocco felony courtroom demonstrates vividly that shackling is not essential to safety.
The racial legacy in the use of shackling is clear. One of our former staffers discovered that juveniles are not shackled in her home nation of Japan. A Japanese academic explained that this is a uniquely U.S. practice that is the legacy of slavery, the current iteration of the former use of “slave chains.”
Indeed, while the practice of shackling children is nearly universal in urban courtrooms filled with black and brown children from low-income neighborhoods, children from families of means who demonstrate similar “criminal” behavior have access to mental health and/or substance abuse treatment centers that generally do not use human shackling hardware, except in short-term “crisis” situations.
Testimony at a public hearing when Illinois considered adopting a Supreme Court Rule to end indiscriminate shackling of children in court included emotional comments from a former juvenile court judge. She noted that the use of shackles on children was common practice in her courtroom when she first came to the bench, and she didn’t think to challenge the practice.
In retrospect, she stated that she wished she had changed the policy — she recalled the horror on the faces of parents as they saw their child brought into the court in shackles and the shame on the faces of the children. Another lawyer argued there was no “safety” issue, as his experience with children shackled in the court system and children with similar issues who were not shackled in the mental health system convinced him that children could be safely transported and appear in court without shackles.
Respecting the human dignity of all individuals, including those accused/convicted of criminal offending, is essential to ensure a strong civil society. The use of shackles on human beings in the U.S. is the legacy of slavery — today’s slave chains. It is especially problematic given the profound racial disparities in our justice system. It is time to end this practice and extend to all our citizens — especially children — their human right to stand unshackled in our courtrooms.
Elizabeth Clarke of Evanston, Illinois, is founder and president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a coalition working to transform the juvenile justice system in Illinois.