Pregnant Prisoners Recount Horrific Jail Conditions ‘Right Out of Dickens Novel’ in Federal Lawsuit

From left, former Nobel peace prize nominee Ellen Barry, expert witness and former prisoner and plaintiff Christina Zepeda.

By Cres Vellucci

In a major lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court here, conditions at the Alameda County Jail at Santa Rita sound more like they come out of a Charles Dickens novel than a modern day correctional facility.

At a press conference Wednesday, lawyers for pregnant prisoners at Santa Rita claim their clients are being inhumanely mistreated by jail personnel, urged to have abortions and are routinely denied medical attention, warm clothing, nutritious food, blankets and even fresh air.

There’s no soap provided by the jail – even for kitchen workers, at least one of whom detailed bird droppings, rat excrement in the kitchen in and around foodstuffs, and baloney sandwiches with “white spots” that no one wants to eat.

In filings, including a host of declarations by prisoners, nurses and other professionals made available to The Davis Vanguard, it’s clear that there is something very wrong inside the county jail at Santa Rita.

The women seek injunctive relief under the U.S. and state constitutions, and demand an end to  inhumane and sexually biased treatment at Santa Rita. Plaintiffs charge they  are subject to more restrictions and harsher treatment than male prisoners, including being held in holding cells for longer periods of time, being denied equal access to jobs outside the cell, limitations on classes and education, and subjected to more frequent strip searches and body cavity searches.

The lawsuit named as defendants Alameda County, Alameda County Jail, Alameda County Sheriff and dozens of individual officers.

In their request for “emergency relief,” the plaintiffs – through Bay Area civil rights lawyers Yolanda Huang and Dennis Cunningham – are asking the federal court to be transferred immediately to alternative treatment programs elsewhere in the county for their safety, and their unborn babies’ safety.

Court filings document how pregnant women have miscarried, and are “scorned, branded and mistreated” by the jail. They’re forced to undergo more, not less, scrutiny by guards and often denied food period; pregnancy plans are nonexistent, according to the lawsuit.

Prisoners horrifically described how one pregnant prisoner screamed for help from the guards, who not only ignored her but muffled her screams by closing the door opening. Later, the woman had a baby alone in the cell – the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, but the mother managed to free the child and it lived.

In a news conference in front of Alameda Administration Building Wednesday, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee confirmed pregnant women at the jail are enduring torturous treatment “right out of a Charles Dickens novel.”

Ellen Barry, the founder of legal services for Prisoners with Children and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and 2008, said “it does not appear that Alameda County Sheriff’s Department is providing even the most basic medical care for pregnant women prisoners at Santa Rita, let alone treatment for women who are experiencing high-risk pregnancies.

“It is clear that the previously developed protocols and checklists” – referring to a court settlement in a similar lawsuit about 30 years ago – “aren’t in place, particularly if women who are bleeding vaginally are not referred for medical care, but instead placed in isolation and strip searched,” Barry said in her statement.

Barry called for the placement of pregnant women and women with newborns in alternative treatment programs in the community (per a 1980s court settlement with the jail) to receive “comprehensive and appropriate medical care, as well as healthy nutrition, appropriate exercise and psychological services that prepare them to have the safest and most healthy birth outcomes.

“Women in the present litigation allege inadequate medical treatment and staff response in situations involving miscarriage and pregnancy complications. Basic sanitation, nutrition and exercise are shockingly inadequate,” Barry said Wednesday.

One former pregnant prisoner – who miscarried after what sounded like inhumane treatment – said Wednesday at the news conference that pregnant women are treated worse than other female prisoners much of the time, and women are treated more roughly than men.

“When I was able to speak with someone who said she was a medical personnel, instead of trying to provide care and comfort, she told me that I could have an abortion anytime. The guards were also encouraging me to have an abortion by letting me know that abortions were readily available. Yet, when I requested medical attention, the guards treated me as a pest and a bother. I feel that the guards were trying to coerce me into getting an abortion or suffer a miscarriage,” said Christina Zepeda, one of the plaintiffs.

She went on to explain how she was forced to sit in her own urine, and how medical personnel gave her little care other than “some Gatorade.”

The Davis Vanguard is analyzing court papers filed Wednesday and will have more on this story.

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7 thoughts on “Pregnant Prisoners Recount Horrific Jail Conditions ‘Right Out of Dickens Novel’ in Federal Lawsuit”

  1. CTherese Benoit

    How are female prisoners getting pregnant? Sounds like some guards need to be fined and dismissed.

    If a woman is pregnant upon arrest; she should probably be sheltered in a medical facility (like mental ones) pending the birth of a healthy child and 3 months afterward. Couldn’t cost more than prison. How healthy can a child be incubating in the poshest of… prison cells? Absurd.

    Is not the whole purpose of American prisons to torture and punish “deserving” citizens? Any suggestions otherwise are nonsensical. There is nothing rehabilitative about our prisons and based on the people who end up there – unfixables and innocents alike – there’s no reason for there to be. To me, the problem worth addressing is that way too many prisoners should not be in prison to begin with. It is the crowding, not the conditions of the modern dungeons, that is the human rights crisis.

    1. David Greenwald

      I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. It’s a jail, so people are there in pre-custodial situations and short-term incarceration post-conviction.

      1. CTherese Benoit

        That is also a big problem… Why are Americans jailed pending their trials??? Even the innocent are tortured for a period of time; sometimes years pending a trial that proves their innocent. That should be grounds for multi-million dollar lawsuits every single time. (not that I am a lawsuit lover). But losing whole chunks of your life based on a false accusation?

        I am amazed by anyone who is freed without having become ruthlessly evil after such an injustice.

        1. David Greenwald

          That’s the big debate over bail reform – why are so many people who are really no threat to the community in custody simply because they cannot afford bail.

        2. Howard P

          The “rub”, David, is a way of determining if they are no threat, prior to trial… yes, there are some no brainers on either end… it is the vast middle where I ask “who decides”?  “On what basis”?

          Those are the unanswered questions…

  2. CTherese Benoit

    I am not sure what Howard P is referring to by the “rub” – so this comparison could be completely off base….

    But if he is referring to how people react to torture and wrongful confinement as being a basis to determine how dangerous they are to society; isn’t this the same reasoning used by criminals in power during the Spanish Inquisition and just about every bogus “witch trial” in history?

    Even if that weren’t awful enough on its own – bail as a way out adds another layer of classism that favors those with money.

    I hope that’s not what he meant. I hope no one thinks this way.

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