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9 Women Describe Horrific Treatment at the Hands of Their Jailers

In California's Santa Rita Jail, pregnant inmates were pressured to have abortions, forced to go without food, and made to live in unsanitary conditions, a new lawsuit alleges.

Peggy Peattie/ZUMA Press/NewscomPeggy Peattie/ZUMA Press/NewscomWomen imprisoned at California's Santa Rita Jail say they're being housed in filthy conditions, denied basic hygiene products, pressured to have abortions, subjected to incessant strip searches, and forced to endure many other manners of cruel and inhumane treatment from guards and staff at the Alameda County facility.

In a new federal lawsuit, they're asking a federal judge to intervene on behalf of them and future female prisoners, particularly those who are pregnant.

"It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby while incarcerated at Santa Rita," plaintiff Christina Zepeda—who miscarried while in the county's custody last August—told the court. She is one of six named plaintiffs in the case.

The jailhouse horror stories they tell can be tough to read. But they provide an invaluable glimpse at the sorts of systemic degradation many such institutions foster, and give voice to an often voiceless and powerless population.

They also speak to a major and overlooked issue in the criminal justice system: how the treatment of pregnant prisoners punishes not just the women themselves but also inflicts harm on their unborn children.

The women's suit comes as attention is rising about the plight of incarcerated women. At jails and prisons around the country, female inmates face the standard abuses inflicted on male prisoners as well as those unique to their sex, from being forced to "free bleed" during their periods if they can't afford to buy tampons to facing higher levels of sexual assault and coercion from guards and staff.

The treatment of expectant mothers can be especially bad, with pregnant prisoners denied proper nutrition and prenatal care and, in some places, forced to give birth in shackles. At Santa Rita, they're subject to all sorts of conditions that could cause harm to a developing fetus and increase the risk of birth defects or miscarriage, according to the new lawsuit. One inmate was allegedly left alone in solitary confinement to give birth.

Santa Rita is the third largest jail in California and the fifth largest it the country. It houses most people, including all women, who are locked up in Alameda County, an area that neighbors San Francisco and includes the cities of Berkeley and Oakland.

Run by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office (ACS), this "mega-jail" features 18 self-contained housing units that can hold around 4,000 prisoners. Those passing through are primarily pre-trial detainees (people who haven't been convicted of any crime yet) and people serving time for minor offenses or probation violations.

As part of the new lawsuit, nine current and former inmates submitted statements detailing their experiences at Santa Rita. Here's what they had to say.

Careless Caging

The only care I receive that is different than what the rest of the women prisoners receive is that my vital signs are monitored three times [per] day, including every day at 2 a.m. This means they wake me up at 2 a.m. to take my blood pressure. Breakfast is at 3:30 or 4 a.m., and if I am unable to get up to go to breakfast, which is most days, then I must endure 18-19 hours of no food from dinner to lunch. —Jaclyn Mohrbacher, pregnant inmate at Santa Rita since mid-December 2017

Under California law, jails must provide an individualized plan of care for each pregnant inmate. The pregnant plaintiffs from Santa Rita say none of them were ever told about or saw such a plan.

A lawyer for Alameda County said he is not able to comment on the case.

Abortion Pressure

"Up until I was past four months pregnant, the medical staff kept handing me pamphlets to tell me that the 'option for abortion is available,'" said Erin Ellis, who has been imprisoned at Santa Rita since last October. Now around 30 weeks pregnant, Ellis has stopped getting these comments herself. But she has still seen staff pressure other pregnant prisoners, particularly Mohrbacher.

Mohrbacher told the court she doesn't trust the jailhouse doctor "because she is always promoting abortions" and scheduled Mohrbacher for one even though she wants to have her baby.

Although I refused to consent to an abortion, she scheduled me for an abortion. When I refused to go, she had two men come to my housing pod, trying to forcibly take me to have an abortion. When I again refused to agree to an abortion, the deputies yelled at me and told me I was on drugs. From then on, their treatment of me grew more abusive and worse.

From that time on, if I requested medical care, or said I was not feeling well, the housing guards... would all tell me that my problem was that I was on drugs, and they would strip me, meaning they would subject me to the humiliating and degrading practice of doing strip search and body cavity search. To do these searches, they would take me and often another pregnant woman and put us in the isolation or solitary confinement cells. We would have to stay there for hours. Then they would often take us to another room, make us strip naked, squat, and show our vagina, our anal cavities, and our mouth.

Menstrual Pad Shortages

The guards, instead of finding out how many women are menstruating, will just hand out some small number of menstrual pads, like eight or ten, and no matter how many women are menstruating. And these pads are tiny and thin to begin with. That means that regularly and routinely, there are insufficient menstrual pads, and women end up bleeding through their clothes. Because laundry is only once a week, often women are forced to endure dirty bloody clothing for long periods of time. —Alexis Wah, 47, incarcerated at Santa Rita "on multiple occasions"

Starving for Two

I am not receiving sufficient food. I am regularly hungry. … My diet is completely deficient in fresh fruits and vegetables, and the amount is not enough to sustain a healthy pregnancy. — Dominique Jackson, pregnant with twins, imprisoned in Santa Rita since December 1, 2017

Jackson can't eat bologna due to a health issue—and pregnant women are advised to avoid cold cuts anyway—but said she is not offered a replacement option on days the cafeteria serves bologna sandwiches for lunch. The only special dietary consideration pregnant inmates are given is an extra eight ounces of milk per day.

Filthy Food

The kitchen at Santa Rita is filthy. There are birds that live in the kitchen and there are bird droppings all over. I have counted seven birds who appear to live in the kitchen. There are rats.…There is nothing that prevents the rats from climbing over the bread and chewing open packages…The sandwich meat, which is primarily bologna, often has white spots on them. I do now know what the white spots are, but that meat is still given to prisoners to eat.…There is no soap in the kitchen bathroom. —Jane Doe, inmate and cafeteria volunteer at Santa Rita Jail

Constant Searches

The guards have been very hostile, always claiming that there's drugs despite a large number of shakedowns and searches. In December, during one week, there were three shakedowns and no drugs were found. No drugs have ever been found. When no drugs are found, the guards then punish the entire [housing unit]. — Natalie Garrido, in custody in Santa Rita due to an alleged probation violation

During the month of December, the deputies claimed they were looking for drugs. I never saw drugs. I never saw the deputies find drugs. Yet searches were repeated, up to multiple times in one week. — Dawn Dedrick, imprisoned in Santa Rita since November 7, 2017

Dedrick said the guards "especially harassed Jaclyn Mohrbacher because they believed she provided leadership to the women and was helping women stand up for our rights."

Dirty Demands

During one strip search, Mohrbacher was "spotting"—light bleeding which could be a sign of miscarriage or other pregnancy complications. A sheriff's deputy allegedly told her to wipe off blood so she could do the search. "I asked her for some pads or a paper towel," Mohrbacher told the court in a statement, but the the deputy instead picked up a nearby trash can and told her to find something in there to use.

I had no choice, but under threats of reprisals and punishment, used a used menstrual pad to wipe myself so that defendant Divine could conduct the invasive, offensive and demeaning and sadistic strip search and body cavity search.

(After the lawsuit was filed, Mohrbacher was transferred to a federal detention facility.)

Dirty Underwear

It would behoove an institution with the responsibility for housing and caring for pregnant women to take immediate steps to reduce the incidences of bacterial vaginosis through the simple measure of insuring sanitized and well laundered underwear. There is no justification for a failure to to so. — Jenny Scafidi, midwife & nurse practitioner, in declaration to the court

Multiple inmates testified about poor laundering, mass bacterial infections, and overprescription of antibiotics at Santa Rita. Erin Ellis, who is currently pregnant and incarcerated at Santa Rita, said that underwear distributed to inmates "are not clean, are stained, and often have pubic hairs on them."

Ellis and multiple other women were diagnosed with the same vaginal bacterial infection, which could be spreading through the unclean underwear. To treat the infection, Ellis was prescribed an antibiotic by the jail's doctor. "I have heard that the antibiotics [the OB-GYN] is prescribing may cause birth defects so I am reluctant to take them," Ellis said.

"Depending on the trimester," the use of certain antibiotics "could result in significant birth defects," said Scafidi. She also pointed out that "bacteria on soiled underwear can lead to a UTI as well as bacterial vaginosis, which both can lead to significant maternal and fetal health conditions if left untreated."

Alameda County denied all responsbility for these issues, noting that a private contractor, California Forensic Medical Company, is in charge of inmate medical care.

Solitary Birth

When Candace, who looked very pregnant to men, complained of not feeling well, she was in so much pain that she could not walk and had to crawl on her hands and knees. The nurse came in and examined her in the cell. The nurse had said that Candace was not dilated, and that Candace was just eight months pregnant. All of us thought Candace was further along than eight months. The nurse proclaimed that Candace just had a stomachache. This is part of the pattern in Santa Rita to paint women prisoners as complainers and exaggerators. —Denise Rohrbacher, incarcerated at Santa Rita from April 2017 through January 20, 2018.

For about a week, Rohrbacher shared a housing unit with the woman known only as Candace. The woman's story was mentioned in statements by several Santa Rita inmates. When Candace continued to complain of being in pain, she was placed in an isolation cell.

In solitary confinement, Candace "began to scream, and yell," said Rohrbacher. "She was banging on her metal door." The guards allegedly just "closed the slider-window to her door, so she could not see out, and no one could see in," and the sound of the screams would be muffled.

This went on for over two hours, until the next guard shift came on that evening. It was agonizing and torture for us to hear her scream like that. Finally, we could hear the crying of a baby. Apparently, Candace had given birth, alone. Only after we could hear the crying of the baby did the deputies finally go over and open her door.

Living With Lice

All cleaning is done by prisoners. We are given very little in the way of supplies, and we are only allowed to have the supplies for a very short time. There is no hand soap anywhere, so we can only rinse our hands. While I was there, we had a very bad infestation of lice. One of the women who was in my pod, [P.K.], was pregnant, and she had such a bad case of lice they had to remove her from our housing unit. All of us had to be removed from our housing unit and we all lost all our our stuff, including the stuff that we had paid for. While I was in custody, I know that [P.K.] also lost her baby and had a miscarriage. I believe her miscarriage was shortly after the lice problem became terrible. —Christina Zepeda, former Santa Rita inmate who miscarried while in county custody

Zepeda was taken to a hospital during her miscarriage, which happened a few days after she was arrested on an alleged parole violation and taken to Santa Rita, and returned to the jail that same night.

A month later, in September 2017, Zepeda was released. In January, she joined the lawsuit against the Alameda County Sheriff's Office and spoke publicly at a press conference about it. Later that day, she was arrested by sheriff's deputies for an alleged parole violation.

In a statement to the court, the county's lawyer said that "by chance, Zepeda's arrest happened to occur about four hours after she apparently participated in a 'press conference' in Oakland regarding the subject matter of this civil lawsuit. It had absolutely nothing to do with this civil lawsuit or the press conference." Zepeda was held at Santa Rita for seven days before being released without charges.

Photo Credit: Peggy Peattie/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Why are they bringing this up now? Should they not wait forty years to come forward, like other women did?

  • jcw||

    Please, twist this to whatever narrative you want to push today.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Maybe those babies will think about this the next time they decide to get born to an incarcerated woman.

  • colorblindkid||

    Is there any evidence that private prisons are any worse than public prisons? Everybody screams their bloody hell off about private prisons while public prisons are often even worse, controlled by corrupt public sector unions.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    From the article: "Alameda County denied all responsbility for these issues, noting that a private contractor, California Forensic Medical Company, is in charge of inmate medical care."
    I'm not defending public sector unions but it appears privatization isn't the answer in this case.

  • Cyto||

    The evidence is the other way round here. The county is using the same denial tactic that would be used by a private jail. "It was a contractor, not us! Not our fault!!"

    The allegation was that unsanitary conditions were leading to infections, and then that those infections were being carelessly treated. The county's response was "medical treatment isn't our fault! We pay someone else for that!!!"

    This response is specious on two levels. First, it doesn't address the initial negligence that is causing health problems to begin with. Second, they are responsible for the health care of inmates, full stop. If they choose to fulfill that responsibility through the use of a contracted service, they are still responsible for the outcome. It is exactly the same as you being responsible for having a car that passes inspection - you can say "hey, I pay the Firestone guys to maintain my car!" all you want.... but the car still has to pass inspection.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Agreed.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    I was thinking that the guards know there are drugs in the housing unit because they sold them.

  • BYODB||

    ^ This. And it's also probable that's how some of these 'inmates' became pregnant in the first place. Whoops.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Alameda County denied all responsbility for these issues, noting that a private contractor, California Forensic Medical Company, is in charge of inmate medical care.

    I didn't kill that man, the hitman I hired did!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Now, you could get away with that defense if you hired the hitman to not kill the target and didn't have time to oversee his work.

  • Booger Cannibal||

    ENB, could you please post the complaint somewhere? Why is it not standard for journalists to make the complaint available?

    Yes, I could search for it on pacer. But it's frustrating that journalists don't just make this stuff available for their readers!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Are you a booger that eats boogers? That's pretty weird, man.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    He ate Booger from Revenge of the Nerds?

  • jcw||

    I googled "Jaclyn Mohrbacher Santa Rita Complaint" and it was the first result, if that helps.

  • Booger Cannibal||

    I found it shortly after commenting, but it's the principle, man. Thanks, though.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The bottom level prison worker is always going to have contempt for his charges. Some prison residents will have legitimate complaints but because others will not, the broad brush comes out. They are burdens, and prison workers feed off each others' contempt. Regardless of whose behavior is actually more criminal, it's the inmate who is in prison and the worker going home at night. That will breed an air of superiority.

    So this is, of course, ultimately only ever going to be fixed with conscientious and attentive management. If that is forced on a particular prison system via the courts, maybe so much the better.

  • 55||

    What have you done with Fist?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I do one legit comment a month. Enjoy it.

  • Cyto||

    This is a natural consequence of the conditions and power structure. Mother Jones had an article about private prisons that discussed this phenomenon. They sent in a reporter who acted as a guard for 4 months. He documents the ways that he changed to become an abusive prison guard. This, even though he was a far-left progressive activist type who was doing activist journalism to "expose" private prisons.

    The elephant in the room is the way we are over-incarcerating people. The left is entirely focused on "but private prisons create incentives to keep people incarcerated", as if public prisons don't create the exact same incentives. And the right is entirely focused on "you gotta be tough on crime!", which means that reducing criminal penalties is usually a non-starter.. and increasing jail time is usually an electoral winner.

    It is only the wacky civil liberties fringe that thinks that sending someone to jail for 4 years for minor infractions is a bad idea.

  • BYODB||


    They also speak to a major and overlooked issue in the criminal justice system: how the treatment of pregnant prisoners punishes not just the women themselves but also inflicts harm on their unborn children.


    Umm...wait so the unborn are children now? I thought they were fetus without a right to life? If that's true, I don't know what the problem is.


    Just kidding, the problem is that we've created a subjective measure of life that we selectively ignore when it serves our rhetorical purposes.

  • BYODB||


    "Up until I was past four months pregnant, the medical staff kept handing me pamphlets to tell me that the 'option for abortion is available,'" said Erin Ellis, who has been imprisoned at Santa Rita since last October. Now around 30 weeks pregnant, Ellis has stopped getting these comments herself.


    So uhh...where's the problem here exactly? Should these women not be informed of their 'right' to an abortion?


    From my personal perspective, I would like to know if these are tax payer funded abortions. Now that would be a problem.

  • jcw||

    So in the comments about an article re: general mistreatment of pregnant inmates, the following topics were discussed:

    #metoo movement (implicit in 1st comment)
    Definition of Life
    Abortion Funding

    top notch.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Commenter dudes on the internet are the real victims here.

  • BYODB||

    It's because, to some people (or at least to me), the rational arguments are so obvious that it's more fun to discuss why an article like this doesn't make any particular sense when measured against other topics.

    Obviously some of these are true violations and some of them are not and it's pretty obvious which one's are which. I latch onto the inconsistencies between this and other viewpoints put forward by Reason. The why is because it's more interesting than talking about the horrors of prison which are, notably, horrors for everyone that's in there.

    Using a particular subset of the people experiencing horror that are particularly shocking is what is known as an 'emotional appeal'. Something that Reason explicitly claims they are above, and I note several arguments that are inconsistent with other authors here at reason (not necessarily the same person, I'll admit, so it has less weight except in terms of Reasons editorial slant).

    Ha and HA, I say.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    Using a particular subset of the people experiencing horror

    I believe the point is that the "subset" of people are made up of 50% of the population who, as a matter of natural course, can sometimes be pregnant. That there doesn't seem to be sufficient accommodation for something that is an entirely predictable and normal situation is wrong and stupid; that this will negatively affect the health and prospects for babies who had no fault in the matter is a disgrace.

    As for your obsession with thinking the abortion angle is some kinda gotcha, I don't see what's so hard to grasp that pressuring women to get an abortion is wrong, even if one thinks that abortion should be an available option.

  • BYODB||

    Finally, the last thing I'll say, is Prison a punishment or a place to 'reeducate'? That divide will probably determine how you feel about all this in some form or another.

  • Azathoth!!||

    What? Now all of a sudden Reason's pro-life?

    Skrags are being told that it'd be better to abort than give birth to a child who's gonna be in the system literally from before the day they were born?

    And now you're worried about the fetus?

    Prisoners get strip searched at the prisons whim? Shocker! When's the 'Sun Rises in East' article coming out?

    It's not good to be pregnant in jail. It's not good to be sick in jail--hell, it's not good to BE in jail. Stop committing crimes. Stay out of jail. It's not nice in there.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Do you have any idea how many crimes you've committed this week?

  • Hugh Akston||

    He will after the SWAT team shows up.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Here's how that should go, Fist--

    Do you have any idea how many crimes you've committed, been arrested for, and tried and convicted of this week?

    See, those are important.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I'm going to take a stab that you're not being disingenuous and point out that, for everyone in that prison, there was some time period between the act that legislators had defined as criminal occurred and the person's arrest, conviction and incarceration. There are so many laws that any one of us, as he reads this, could be existing in that time period.

  • Hail Rataxes||

    You're right. These women were in pretrial detention.

  • 1980-f||

    Important, yes, because you are the lucky one. Perhaps it's because of something you didn't earn: your ethnic origin, your class, where your parents brought you up, the school you attended. If some of those were different, it could be you in prison.
    https://www.weareallcriminals.org/

  • Kwix||

    I'm going to guess 21?

  • BYODB||

    I don't see what's so hard to understand.

    If the fetus is useful to our argument, it has a right to life.

    If the fetus is not useful to our argument, it's her choice if it has a right to life or not via conflicting natural rights (which in the case of a certain class of prisoner, this may or may not apply).

    Nowhere is it discussed if the fetus has a right to life that is determined by it's humanity. It's subjective all the way down.

    Maybe we should talk about mandatory abortions (or mandatory NO abortions) for prisoners since it's been established in U.S. law that certain natural rights are forfeited upon being found guilty of a certain class of crime. Now that would be an interesting debate. At that point, a whole lot of things are no longer 'her choice'. Is this one of those things? After all, libertarians have established that before a certain point it's not a person at all. Roe V. Wade comes instantly to mind.

    This is an excellent type of debate to illustrate Libertarians who believes in principles over principals, right?

  • MasterThief||

    How about no conjugal visits? Then inmates will not be getting pregnant unless guards and/or prison staff break protocol. If the woman is pregnant before sentencing and incarceration... then I'd say she has some of the same choices any woman has (noting that I'm pro-life, personally). The question is how the medical and other costs of her choice are addressed and not billed to the taxpayers.

  • 1980-f||

    Your harsh and dispassionate approach, so common to your country with its high rates of imprisonment, is anathema to many other developed societies. Here in the UK, we have many problems with that but we have not gone so far as you have. When someone is sent to prison, they lose their freedom to earn money. Therefore they are given adequate but not luxurious versions of anything they really need: full NHS medical care, menstrual items, toiletries and so on. To deny anyone these things is unnecessarily cruel because offenders are humans too.

  • 1980-f||

    Your harsh and dispassionate approach, so common to your country with its high rates of imprisonment, is anathema to many other developed societies. Here in the UK, we have many problems with that but we have not gone so far as you have. When someone is sent to prison, they lose their freedom to earn money. Therefore they are given adequate but not luxurious versions of anything they really need: full NHS medical care, menstrual items, toiletries and so on. To deny anyone these things is unnecessarily cruel because offenders are humans too.

  • 1980-f||

    I don't know why my comment appears twice.

  • Eidde||

    Bottom line (if the charges are true): The guards are abusive, and the system which empowers the guards is also abusive. This is true of all the violations described.

    "Mohrbacher told the court she doesn't trust the jailhouse doctor "because she is always promoting abortions" and scheduled Mohrbacher for one even though she wants to have her baby."

    Promoting abortions? Please, the correct term is "empowering women by informing them of the full range of reproductive health services." /sarc

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    "During the month of December, the deputies claimed they were looking for drugs. I never saw drugs. I never saw the deputies find drugs. Yet searches were repeated, up to multiple times in one week. — Dawn Dedrick, imprisoned in Santa Rita since November 7, 2017"
    Somehow it always comes back to our beloved War On Drugs. There is no brutality or inhumanity perpetrated by the police state that cannot be instantly absolved if they can invoke "drugs" as their raisons d'etre.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Imagine what we could accomplish with a War on Guns®™...

  • damikesc||

    Legally, don't know how the treatment of the unborn can be illegal at this point. If abortion is legal because it is not a person, mistreatment of it cannot be illegal, either.

    You cannot have it both ways. If what was done to their unborn is criminal, abortion is criminal...

  • Abe Froman||

    The entire complement of prison officials, from the lowliest ass-wipe guard to the highest turd-sack administrator should all be locked up for the rest of their lives, but not in a US prison. They should be farmed out to some third-world hell-hole like Angola or the Congo.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    I think I'm finding another reason why one could equate being a libertarian with being unfeeling.

    Reading this story I find myself asking "What crimes are these women in prison for?". If the answer to that question is drugs or prostitution, then the answer to the problem in this story isn't better prison conditions, it's not having those women in prison in the first place. Yes, better prisons would be a nice thing, but again, as a libertarian, behavioral incentives align with personal benefit, and none of those incentives align with prisoners being treated well. The answer is to not put people in prison for victimless crimes. It's hard to emote when I don't believe in the 'solution'.

    The same is true of the mass shootings. There is so much BS involved with both sides. Conflating suicides with mass shootings is inane. Acting as if the gun is the problem when it's fairly obvious that in most (all?) cases of mass shootings it's someone who feels disenfranchised in some way, and how can you not feel disenfranchised when we are being actively divided for political ends. Again, it's hard for me to give a hoot when none of the proposed solutions (ban guns! more security! arrest people because facebook!) are all just posturing and don't address anything approaching a real issue.

    I am feeling pretty unfeeling right now...

  • Curly4||

    This happening in the PRC (Peoples Republic of California)? I cannot believe it!

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