OREM, Utah (ABC4 News) – Michelle Aldana has come a long way since she served a seven-month stint at the Utah State Prison on three felony drug convictions – and gave birth while imprisoned.
Today, she’s all smiles as she expects her third son. But her firstborn, Brayden, came into the world while she was in prison and chained to a hospital bed.
“I felt like an animal in a cage. I felt like I wasn’t human,” said Aldana, who has since turned her criminal past into a vehicle to help others struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.
Nearly 17 years after Brayden was born, Aldana still gets emotional when she talks about being shackled to the hospital bed, the chains cutting the skin around her ankles to the point of bleeding.
She said the stressful 40-hour labor was made more terrifying because she was restrained.
“They hurt my baby….and he didn’t do anything to anybody,” she says while sobbing. “I felt like it was my fault because I had a drug charge…but he didn’t do anything – ever – to anybody. He’s just a tiny little baby and they hurt him really bad…and I still feel really bad.”
Brayden was born with meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS) and emerged from the womb unconscious, Aldana said. Because of her body type, Aldana said she was in danger if she gave birth vaginally, but the state would not pay for a C-section. She said the vaginal birth broke her pelvis.
“I just remember it hurting really bad,” she said. “[The chains] cut into me deeper and deeper and it hurt. I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t walk…I couldn’t adjust myself to make my back feel better. And nobody would talk to me and help me…they would talk to the prison staff.”
Calls to several local hospitals that supposedly still do this practice of chaining inmate mothers to the bed were unreturned Wednesday, but Rep. Stephanie Pitcher (D-Salt Lake City) said she is confident the practice is coming to an end in Utah, with some provisions for soft restraints for inmates who may be a flight risk. Pitcher introduced a bill during the 2019 Legislative Session which passed in the House and Senate to end the practice in Utah. Gov. Herbert is expected to sign it soon.
Statistics show female inmates are at low-risk of escaping and typically non-violent. The federal Pregnant Women in Custody Act prohibits federal prisons from using restraints or housing pregnant inmates in restrictive housing, and many states are following suit.
So far, the practice has been banned (or a ban is being weighed) in 23 states.
“Everybody deserves respect and compassion in our criminal justice system and I think that our legislature is kind of moving in that direction as well,” said Pitcher.
“Nobody in this world deserves to be treated like an animal,” said Aldana.
Michelle Aldana works as an intern at a methadone clinic called True North Recovery and Wellness Center. She has also volunteered in the Utah County Jail’s Chain Breakers program.