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Going to Jail Shouldn't Mean Losing Your Rights...Or Your Life

Written by Rachel Roth for - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

The month of May brought two disturbing news stories that illustrate the needless and sometimes tragic suffering inflicted on pregnant women in jail. By suffering, I do not mean the deprivation of comfort and companionship that women might experience if they were at home instead of in jail. I mean the deprivation of basic constitutional and human rights, including the right to be treated as a human being. Without a baseline of respect for human dignity, being taken into custody puts people’s lives and rights in danger.

The first story makes this painfully clear in its recounting of the death of a young woman in jail. What makes this news all the more upsetting is that her death was preventable. The second story recounts an all too familiar struggle between a woman seeking to exercise her reproductive rights and a sheriff standing in her way. Together, both stories remind us of what is at stake when people are imprisoned, even for brief periods of time.

Pregnant Woman Dies of Medical Neglect

Whatever Chuniece Patterson and her family thought when she was arrested, they probably didn’t think that two days in the inaptly named “Justice Center” would result in her death. But that is just what happened to this 21 year-old African-American woman when she was arrested and jailed in Syracuse, New York.

According to the news report Patterson found out at that she was pregnant at the jail. This means that the staff knew she was pregnant, too. But they essentially ignored her symptoms of abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and weakness. Although nurses made three visits to her cell, and various deputies made rounds, no one provided meaningful medical assistance. A nurse who visited Patterson in her cell did not examine her abdomen or bring her to the medical unit for a pelvic exam. It does not even appear that she took her temperature or her blood pressure, which might have suggested signs of fever or internal bleeding (it “does not appear” because the nurse wrote her “observations” after the fact, after Patterson had already died). A woman in a nearby cell said that she could hear Patterson moan and see her writhe in agony throughout the night.

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