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“Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains”

Penelope Gibbs
10 Jun 2014

The symbolism of chains is very strong – for me it evokes slavery and a lack of respect for human dignity.  Today in the Washington DC Superior Court, I saw more shackles than I have in a lifetime, apart from in films.   I had heard that people were often shackled in court, but the reality was really bleak.  The DC Court, which is very near Capitol Hill and the White House, deals with a whole variety of cases, some very minor indeed.  Yet all those brought in from custody appear shackled at the ankles, waist and hands.  And the distance between handcuffs is tiny, so a defendant trying to indicate in a trial how a witness held her hands under her coat, had real difficulty.  This defendant was a child, probably 14, with quite serious mental health problems.  He was still shackled.  Apparently the judges have objected to the shackling (which is relatively recent), but the all powerful marshals (security guards) have decreed that shackling is necessary for the protection of all court staff – there have been a number of attacks on judges in US courtrooms.  The only “good” thing about shackling is that staff are then confident for defendants to appear in open court – US judges recoil in horror at the idea of a secure dock, which is very prevalent in English courts.