Shackling People in Court is Shameful, Unnecessary Legacy of Slavery

Elizabeth ClarkeU.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.

Illinois Governor’s Plan to Close Juvenile Prisons Nears Completion

CHICAGO -- Every morning in southern Illinois, 38 full-time prison guards board a state bus and ride 46 miles to the Illinois Youth Center and correctional facility at Murphysboro. The facility was built in 1997 with a capacity for 156 young people.

But when the guards arrive for work every day, no inmates are waiting for them.

Concurrent with a steady decline in youth incarceration, Murphysboro hasn’t seen an inmate in months. But a heavily disputed proposal by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to close Murphysboro and the under-populated juvenile facility at Joliet, consolidating their inmates with those in other facilities across the state, is nearing its final stages.

“Illinois is in the middle of a fiscal crisis, and we’re finding ourselves having to cut programs all over the

The fence outside the Joliet facility. Photo courtesy of suzphotofun on Flickr.

board,” said Illinois assistant budget director Abdon Pallasch. “And now that our juvenile inmate population is only 943, as opposed to almost 1,700 in 1990, we just don’t need these facilities anymore.”

Pallasch credits the declining inmate population to a new focus on “smaller, community-based” programs rather than centralized prison facilities. Alternative rehabilitation methods like Redeploy Illinois have led to a 50 percent reduction in reoffending among incarcerated youth since 2005, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.

“When we look at the outcomes from juvenile prisons, we see that the recidivism rate is higher than for kids who go through Redeploy, which focuses more on community intervention,” said Nora Collins-Mandeville, director of policy and communications at the Evanston-based Juvenile Justice Initiative. “So we definitely think the prison closures are a step in the right direction — it shows us the state has been committed to investing in alternatives.”

Quinn’s plan, however, still faces strong opposition from labor unions and Alexander County legislators. Union officials like AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall decry prison closings, arguing that such measures will lead to overcrowding and safety concerns at remaining correctional facilities.

“[The governor] uses the euphemism of ‘consolidation,’ but what they’re really talking about is cutting valuable services,” Lindall said. “Murphysboro is an exceptional facility that offers services unavailable at other centers, and we can’t afford to lose it.”

An overhead view of the Murphysboro facility. Photo courtesy of

But Murphysboro’s militaristic management style, considered a classic example for youth incarceration across the country, has long faced criticism as an outdated and overly-austere model. A June 2003 federal Department of Justice study, “found no significant differences in recidivism rates between boot camp participants and comparison groups,” continuing: “In some cases, boot camp graduates had higher rates of recidivism.”

In response to concerns that the closures will lead to overcrowding, Pallasch said the youth detention center in St. Charles, Ill. is being renovated to accept the remaining youth at Joliet, a facility designed for 399 inmates that currently houses 149 youth.

In order to push through his proposal, Quinn vetoed a 2011 initiative from the Illinois National Assembly, which in response to union pressure voted to re-fund the prisons in part by siphoning $56 million from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The Illinois General Assembly approved the governor’s decision last week. For Pallasch, that sum of money has many better uses than sustaining two nearly-empty youth prisons.

“Closing these facilities will save us $88 million per year we won’t have to cut from university scholarships, pre-kindergarten programs or health services,” he said. “Every state program is feeling the squeeze right now, and it’s important we have our priorities in line.”