Emergency Hearing to Address Fate of Pregnant Prisoners in California

"Time is truly of the essence here," said a lawyer for women imprisoned at Santa Rita Jail.


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An emergency hearing in federal court today will address allegations that some California jailers have been negligent in caring for pregnant prisoners and generally abusive toward female inmates at the Santa Rita Jail.

Six women, all currently or formerly incarcerated at the jail, filed a lawsuit in January against the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. In the suit, they allege all sorts of abuses, including pressuring pregnant prisoners to have abortions, denying them adequate food, and providing wretched medical care.

The case draws attention to a problem that extends far beyond California yet has only recently started to get mainstream attention. But has the attention in this particular case come too late?

Alameda County has denied responsibility for any medical negligence, citing its use of a private contractor to provide health care to prisoners, and it has denied responsibility for the inadequate diets, on the grounds that food is handled by another private contractor, Aramark. Both the county and the medical contractor, the California Medical Forensic Group (CMFG), have moved to delay the case, saying they need time for more investigation. CMGF has requested an extension until at least late March.

Meanwhile, pregnant prisoners are still being housed in a place where guards allegedly deny them adequate food and hygiene products, subject them to conditions that cause miscarriages, force them to wear dirty underwear, serve them filthy food, let infectious diseases go untreated, and left one woman to give birth alone in solitary confinement.

In an email to CMFG's attorney, the prisoners' lawyer, Yolanda Huang, wrote that she "appreciate[d] that in a routine litigation, [the request for more time] would be reasonable and deserving of courtesy. However, in the present case there is a pressing situation due to the fragile and quickly changing needs of unborn children."

One of the pregnant plaintiffs, Dominique Jackson, is pregnant with twins and also suffers from asthma and a heart condition. "She has difficulty breathing and neither her heart condition nor her asthma is being treated by defendants," said Huang in a February 17 declaration to the court.

Her treating medical provider at Highland Hospital stated that the nutrition Ms. Jackson is currently receiving is inadequate for someone carrying twins and recommended home release. Ms. Jackson's diet and medical care have not been improved or changed in any way since the filing of this lawsuit.

CFMG has three weeks to respond, "a week longer than normal under the local rules," yet "they present no reason besides a vague reference to 'investigation' for needing extra time," noted Huang. "Time is truly of the essence here."