Florida Jail Forced Mentally Ill Woman To Give Birth Alone In Solitary Confinement
At 3:16 a.m. on April 10, Tammy Jackson, a mentally ill and pregnant prisoner in solitary confinement in Florida's Broward County Jail, started having contractions. She told staffers that she was going into labor. She was ignored. For hours, she screamed and cried for help. Instead of taking her to a hospital, prison staff attempted to get in touch with an on-call physician who never showed up. By 10 a.m. that morning, she had given birth to her daughter, alone in a prison cell, with absolutely no help from anyone.
This is the story Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein told Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony in a two-page letter written this past Friday. Finkelstein alleges that the staff was keenly aware of both her mental illness issues (as she had already been assessed and they had been described as "significant") and the fact that she was pregnant and near-term.
Although Sheriff Tony says that his office launched an internal affairs investigation two days after the incident, a spokesperson for BSO issued a statement of denial:
In an email, BSO spokeswoman Gina Carter said "a Well Path medical team, including a physician and two nurses, attended to the mother and child. Child Protective Investigations Section was notified, and the baby was placed with an appropriate caregiver."
That seems like a denial -- and yet does not say the doctor and nurses attended mother and child during the labor or delivery. This is far from the first time the prison healthcare company Wellpath—formerly Correct Care Solutions—has been accused of neglecting prisoners. From 2005 to 2017, the company had been sued 140 times and at least six of those suits alleged they neglected people to death. Naturally, they have a 97 percent monopoly on the prison healthcare industry.
Finklestein, however, is not having it:
In his letter Finkelstein demanded an immediate review of medical and isolation practices at all Broward County detention facilities.
"It is unconscionable that any woman, particularly a mentally ill woman, would be abandoned in her cell to deliver her own baby," the public defender wrote. "Your staff did not protect either Ms. Jackson or her child. Despite their neglect and callous indifference, both Ms. Jackson and her child survived. It remains to be seen how this gross negligence will affect Ms. Jackson's already fragile mental health."
Just to recap! They put a mentally ill and pregnant prisoner in solitary confinement, a practice we know is dangerous to anyone's mental health, refused to take her to a hospital, and let her give birth alone in her cell.
Gosh, this inmate must have been pretty dangerous for them to decide that this was the only way they could possibly go about things, huh? Surely she was a vicious murderer of some kind, right?
Jackson, 34, was arrested by BSO in late March. According to records from the Broward County Clerk of Court, she'd been arrested in January on cocaine possession charges and released, but failed to report for pretrial services so a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was also charged with trespassing, sleeping on a public street and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Possession and failing to appear for trial as well as "general homelessness." I think they could have taken her to a damn hospital without putting anyone's life in danger.
Last week, Florida Republicans successfully passed their bill to only restore voting rights to felons with enough money to pay all their outstanding fines and victim restitution, which means that a whole lot of the exact kind of people who might put pressure on the government to change these horrific practices have no means by which to do so.
Unfortunately, there's a lot more going on here than just one horrific instance in a Florida jail. This whole thing occurred at the intersection of two major issues with the U.S. prison system—the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners and the use of jails as modern-day asylums following the deinstitutionalization movement, plus the generally horrific treatment of pregnant prisoners.
We don't really put severely mentally ill people in mental institutions anymore, and so when someone has a serious episode, people are likely to just call the police. As a result, about two million mentally ill people end up in jails every year, 15 percent of the men admitted and 30 percent of the women. In the last three decades, the number of severely mentally ill people in jails and prisons has tripled, and 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have spent some time in jail or prison in their lives.
Florida officials, by the way, have been aware of this problem in their own corrections system since at least 2007:
In the Broward County Jail in 2007, 23 percent of the prisoners were taking psychotropic medication. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said: "Our jails and prisons collectively are the biggest mental-health facilities in the state. . . . Jails have become asylums for thousands of inmates with mental illnesses whose problems and needs far exceed what jails can provide."
Last year, a mentally ill man not getting proper treatment in Broward County Jail cut off his own penis while in solitary confinement. So things have just been going really well for them in this area for a while.
Jail, unlike prison, is where people stay while awaiting trial, so we're not even talking about people who have actually been convicted of anything yet. So, you know, they throw these people in jail for a spell ... and then guess what? More than 80 percent of them don't get any treatment while they're there. They don't get their medications. I have personally been on the phone with jail personnel for hours trying to get them to allow someone to take a much-needed psychiatric medication (a kind that would have been physically dangerous for them to go cold turkey on) and the only reason it got sort of fast-tracked was because I threatened to write an article about it.
They also tend to stay longer than other inmates, which means that if they have jobs—jobs that provide them with healthcare—they're probably going to lose those jobs and that healthcare. And then guess what happens? They end up back in there, or they end up in full-on prisons. America!
I'm not going to even get into the number of mentally ill prisoners with substance abuse issues in the prison system (because self-medication) that aren't getting help, because then we would be here all day.
Then we've got pregnant prisoners. There are no official standards of care for pregnant people in US prisons, and half of the time, prisons don't even follow the guidelines set by the states. Shackling of prisoners during labor, dangerous for both parent and child and also completely inhumane, is only illegal in 28 states. Pregnant prisoners often do not get the food they need to eat, mothers sometimes can't breastfeed their newborns, and sometimes they're not even allowed to decide to put the child in the care of family or friends and must put it in the foster system, depending on the state they happen to be incarcerated in.
This never should have happened, but the apathy towards the mentally ill and pregnant people is so deeply ingrained in the corrections system that it did. Things like this are going to keep happening until we figure out more humane ways to deal with both of these issues. And we probably never will, because the people most affected by these and all the other issues going on in our prison system do not have voting rights, and most everyone else is too busy going "I don't care, you do the crime you have to do the time! Prison isn't a summer camp!" and then patting themselves on the back for being so fabulously fair and righteous.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse