By Aurora Brice
Lenika Michelle Brown. Tammy Jackson. Sandra Quinones. These are the names of incarcerated pregnant women who either died, or had their newborn die due to poor medical treatment in the U.S. prison system. Each of these women cried out for help and prison guards ignored their cries for medical assistance. The U.S. prison system is essentially punishing fetuses for the crimes and poor decisions made by their mothers.
As a member of the criminal justice community, I have become more aware of the challenges that incarcerated pregnant women face. These challenges include: a lack of prenatal care policies, maternal care units, nutrition, and disciplinary rules that impact the health and safety of the mother and fetus. In a year-long study by the Prison Policy Initiative, there were nearly 1,400 admissions of pregnant women to the state and federal prisons with over 800 pregnancies ending during incarceration (this includes live births, miscarriages, and other outcomes). By neglecting and withholding care to incarcerated pregnant women, I would argue that the U.S. prison system is actively violating their Eighth Amendment rights. We need to implement clear universal health and safety guidelines to reduce maternal deaths.
I am appalled that a country with such a wealth of medical resources chooses to ignore one of its most vulnerable populations. Incarcerated people are entitled to healthcare, and local, state, and federal governments are obligated to provide them with it. I struggle to understand how a prison guard can stand by and listen to a woman wail from labor pains or hear a newborn baby cry and fail to act in a timely manner by calling for medical assistance. America, we have a huge problem, have we lost our moral fiber as a country?
Lenika Michelle Brown was a 37-year woman awaiting trial at the Madison County Detention Center in Mississippi for charges of marijuana trafficking. Brown was 3-4 weeks pregnant and complained of stomach pains. She was ignored by prison guards. When she finally received medical attention, it was too late. A nurse conducted CPR on Brown and she was unresponsive and declared dead. Brown’s family stated that she had no history of medical problems.
Tammy Jackson was a 34- year woman housed in Broward County jail in Florida. Jackson, who suffered from bipolar schizophrenia, was arrested on trespassing and drug charges. Jackson screamed in pain as she went into labor in an isolated cell. A deputy who saw Jackson in distress looked on but refused to provide her with medical assistance. Jackson experienced seven hours of labor with no doctors or medication. Jackson, who gave birth to a baby girl, couldn’t catch the baby as she was coming out, so the baby hit the prison floor. Even after giving birth, the deputy waited hours before they called to have Jackson transported to the hospital for medical treatment. Jackson died 18 months later, leaving behind her baby Miranda.
Sandra Quinones, who was 28-years old, was housed in Orange County jail for possession of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance for sale (which was a parole violation). Quinones was six months pregnant when her water broke. Quinones pressed the emergency assistance button and the deputies waited two hours before they responded. The deputies decided not to call an ambulance, and instead they drove Quinones to the hospital. The incident was recorded as a non-emergency matter. Before going to the hospital, the deputies made a pit stop at Starbucks while Quinones bled in the back of the car. The baby did not survive.
I understand there are some taxpayers who feel that we are doing enough for incarcerated persons: providing three meals a day and shelter despite their poor decision-making. Some taxpayers may think that these mothers should have made better decisions to avoid being incarcerated while pregnant. However, shouldn’t we consider the innocence of the child? The children of incarcerated mothers should not be held responsible for the actions of their mother. A prison sentence should also not warrant cruel and unusual punishment.
We have a serious problem in America. We must create clear universal health and safety guidelines that will reduce maternal deaths amongst incarcerated pregnant women; and we must restore humanity behind bars. Without the implementation of universal health and safety guidelines, we will continue to perpetuate an inhumane system where mothers and babies die due to the lack of maternal care units behind bars. We must fight to reform our prison systems to get justice for incarcerated people who have been wronged, such as Lenika Michelle Brown, Tammy Jackson, and Sandra Quinones.
Aurora Brice is a Brooklyn native and she is passionate about helping communities amplify their voices’ for better resources. She has extensive experience anchoring institutions to participate in organized urban renewal task to restore vibrant, diverse neighborhoods and build community.
Carroll, Leah. “Pregnant Woman Complaining Of Stomach Pain Dies In Mississippi Jail.” Refinery29, December 27, 2018. https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/12/220363/lenika-michelle-brown-mississippi-jail-pregnancy-death.
Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Forced to Give Birth Alone: How Prisons and Jails Neglect Pregnant,” October 3, 2022. https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/forced-give-birth-alone-how-prisons-and-jails-neglect-pregnant-people-who-are-incarcerated.
Livingston, Layron. “‘It Was Horrifying,’ Says Woman Who Gave Birth in Broward Jail.” WPLG, May 8, 2019. https://www.local10.com/news/2019/05/08/it-was-horrifying-says-woman-who-gave-birth-in-broward-jail/.
Paris, Joseph. “Why Prisoners Deserve Health Care.” AMA Journal of Ethics 10, no. 2 (February 1, 2008): 113–15. https://doi.org/10.1001/virtualmentor.2008.10.2.msoc1-0802.
Patel, Vimal. “Inmate Who Was Pregnant Settles Suit Over Stop at Starbucks En Route to a Hospital.” The New York Times, August 28, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/28/us/sandra-quinones-orange-county-settlement.html.
Prison Policy Initiative. “Unsupportive Environments and Limited Policies: Pregnancy, Postpartum, and Birth during Incarceration.” Prison Policy Initiative, August 19, 2021. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2021/08/19/pregnancy_studies/.