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Pregnant prisoners recount horrific jail conditions at Santa Rita in federal lawsuit

February 3, 2018

Oakland – In a major class action 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, Jan. 31, lawyers for pregnant prisoners at Santa Rita claim their clients are being inhumanely mistreated by jail personnel, urged to have abortions and routinely denied medical attention, warm clothing, nutritious food, blankets and even fresh air.

From left, former Nobel peace prize nominee Ellen Barry, founder of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and an expert witness in this case, listens as former prisoner and plaintiff Christina Zepeda speaks at the press conference. Earlier, Christina had told of losing her baby at Santa Rita.

No soap is 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, 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, limited 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. There are six named plaintiffs, Black, Latino and White.

At a press conference Wednesday, Jan. 31, lawyers for pregnant prisoners at Santa Rita claim their clients are being inhumanely mistreated by jail personnel, urged to have abortions and routinely denied medical attention, warm clothing, nutritious food, blankets and even fresh air.

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.”

Court filings document how pregnant women have miscarried and are “scorned, branded and mistreated” by the jail.

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.”

Ellen Barry 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.”

“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 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.”

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