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More than 50 women's rights organizations have signed a letter demanding an investigation into jail healthcare in Broward County.
More than 50 women's rights organizations have signed a letter demanding an investigation into jail healthcare in Broward County.
Pro-Choice Coalition of Broward County

Women's Rights Groups Demand an Investigation After Inmate Gives Birth Alone In Her Cell

On April 10, Tammy Jackson, a 34-year-old, mentally ill, and pregnant inmate at the Broward County detention facility in Pompano Beach begged staff for help. She was experiencing contractions, she said. But she wasn't sent to a hospital. Instead, the guards contacted an on-call physician at 3:16 a.m.

At 7:22 a.m., after hours of labor alone in her cell, Jackson spoke to the doctor. He hurried to the jail. One hour and 38 minutes later, Jackson told jail staff she was bleeding. But they again neglected to do anything to help the pregnant inmate. After a grueling, almost seven-hour ordeal without medical assistance, Jackson gave birth alone in her cell before the doctor arrived.

Earlier this week, more than 50 women's rights organizations — including the Pro-Choice Coalition of Broward, Unite Women, and National Women’s Liberation of Florida — signed a letter demanding an investigation into women's jail healthcare in Broward County in light of Jackson's appalling experience. They are also asking that Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony be held accountable for Jackson's treatment, though they have not yet made specific demands on that front.

The letter details the horror Jackson endured behind bars, including reports that other inmates watched her in agony through plexiglass walls. According to press reports cited in the letter, Jackson's cell was splattered with blood and looked like a "murder scene."

"We are concerned that Broward County has not taken the necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of people in its custody," reads the letter. "The Sheriff must be held accountable for this inhumane, horrifying treatment wherein the Sheriff’s staff turned a blind eye to Tammy Jackson’s gruesome ordeal.... the staff failed to protect the health of a mother and her baby."

The coalition will present the letter as well as a petition urging an investigation into the medical protocols at Broward detention facilities to the Broward County City Commission at its next meeting on June 4.

The coalition of women's groups — including civil rights organizations such as the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward and the ACLU Chapter of Broward — hopes measures will be enacted to prevent this sort of neglect in the future.

If an investigation proceeds, one group is likely to be particularly scrutinized: Medical provider Wellpath, the company that employs the doctors and nurses at the facility. According to a recent CNN report, Wellpath has been involved in multiple lawsuits at different facilities nationwide involving pregnant women in custody.

"The whole system is backward," says Joann Sterner, President of Broward NOW, one of the groups that co-signed the letter. "There is no humanity in this place. Something needs to be done: Everything is about the guards, not the inmates."

In 2011, Sterner toured women's jail facilities in downtown Fort Lauderdale and Pompano after complaints surfaced about the treatment of inmates. Although BSO tried to reassure her that they were treated well, Sterner had some concerns. For starters, she says inmates were served breakfast between 4 and 5 a.m., lunch around 10 a.m., and dinner around 3 p.m.

"If they wanted anything to eat [after dinner], they had to buy it themselves with what little money they earned or what their family put into their account," Sterner says. "[The staff] wanted to get the meals out of the way before shift change."

Sterner ate at one of the facilities herself. "My lunch consisted of a white bread cheese sandwich, a small apple, cookie, and a small fruit drink — very nutritious for women."

Sterner says she hopes things have changed since then, but Tammy Jackson's experience points to ongoing, severe treatment issues within the facilities.

Read the Pro-Choice Coalition of Broward County's letter to the Broward County Commission in its entirety below:

Dear Mayor and Members of the Commission:

The Pro-Choice Coalition of Broward County is a coalition of several organizations representing civic-minded residents — including trained health experts — from every part of our county. We are also part of Floridians for Reproductive Freedom, a statewide consortium of more than 50 groups and individuals working to advance women’s reproductive health.

We are writing to ask you to take immediate action to address the April 10th incident involving Tammy Jackson, who was being held in a North Broward County detention facility for people with special needs, and to launch a full investigation into how the health care needs of people in the custody of the Broward County Sheriff are being met.

On April 10th, Ms. Jackson, a mentally ill, 34-year-old woman, was forced to deliver her baby locked in an isolation cell. By all accounts, it was horrific. Two other pregnant women being held in the same facility later reported that they were able to hear Ms. Jackson screaming and watch through the plexiglass as she bled and suffered for hours, giving birth by herself while jail staff ignored her pleas for help.

Every pregnant person needs compassion, support, and health care expertise. What she doesn’t need is unqualified jailers ignoring her, making decisions about her labor progress, and neglecting her.

We are concerned that Broward County has not taken the necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of people in its custody.

According to press reports, other inmates said the isolation cell was splattered with blood and looked like a murder scene. Ms. Jackson said that during her terrifying ordeal, she feared her C-section scar from a prior delivery would burst open and she or her baby would die. She didn’t receive any medical attention for almost seven hours - no medication, no medical treatment or help of any kind until after her baby was born.

Ms. Jackson told jail staff she was having contractions at around 3 a.m., but staff didn’t contact the doctor on call until after 7 a.m. and by the time the doctor showed up around 10 a.m., she had already given birth by herself.

We call on you to address this issue by establishing a more transparent collaboration with local communities, disability rights groups, and civil rights organizations and increasing access to health care for those incarcerated in our communities. We ask you to answer the following questions:

Why didn’t the Broward jail send Ms. Jackson to the hospital when she went into labor?
After the doctor on call did not arrive, why did no one call 911?
What are the policies and protocols for the treatment of pregnant people in our Broward jails?
Is it standard operating procedure to treat women at full term like animals and leave them in isolation cells to fend for themselves during childbirth?

The Broward County Commission gives the Broward County Sheriff millions of dollars in funding for jails every year. The Sheriff must be held accountable for this inhumane, horrifying treatment wherein the Sheriff’s staff turned a blind eye to Tammy Jackson’s gruesome ordeal. They knew she was at full term and would need medical attention to give birth. Presumably the guards, just like her fellow inmates, could see her suffering through the birth and hear her cries for help. Despite this being a facility for people with special needs, staff failed to protect the health of a mother and her baby.

We urge you to coordinate efforts with local hospital emergency departments, midwives, birth doulas and other public health entities in order to effectively make available resources and coordinate reproductive health care efforts — especially labor and delivery — for those in custody.

The Pro-Choice Coalition of Broward County and all the undersigned hope you will proactively address this issue to prevent such a situation from ever happening again.

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