FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A Broward County inmate screaming for help in her jail cell was forced to give birth there, ignored by jail staff members standing outside her cell until just before her son was born, according to the Broward Public Defender’s Office.
Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony fired two top-level jail administrators Thursday, barely 24 hours after learning of the incident.
“I conducted a review of the matter and determined that command level failures occurred by Col. (Gary) Palmer and Lt. Col. (Angela) Neely in this case,” Tony said in a news release announcing the terminations. “They grossly failed this agency and this inmate.”
The mentally ill woman gave birth Sept. 27, nearly three months after the state enacted the Tammy Jackson Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women law, which puts safeguards in place preventing pregnant women being in restrictive or isolated cells during their detention.
Jackson had her baby alone in a jail cell in April 2019, drawing outrage from Public Defender Howard Finkelstein and inspiring the new law, which passed both through the state Legislature unanimously in March.
In the latest case, the 28-year-old pregnant Boca Raton woman was brought into custody on a burglary charge in early September. She was being kept in an infirmary cell, able to be seen by attending nurses on short notice. But it’s a far cry from a hospital room, said Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, whose office represents the woman.
Weekes stopped short Thursday of accusing the Sheriff’s Office of violating the letter of the law. “In my opinion, the law established a certain spirit of how women should be treated, with dignity,” he said. The law does not contain provisions for what would happen if an agency violates it, but an inmate would probably be able to bring a civil case, Weekes said.
Officials knew the inmate was pregnant “and also suffering from acute mental illness” soon after she was taken into custody.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel is not identifying the woman to protect the identity of the baby boy, who is now in the custody of the Department of Children and Families. The woman was ordered released without bond Sept. 29, two days after the child’s birth.
“She should have been kept in close monitoring by medical staff the entire length of her pregnancy or her incarceration,” said Weekes.
Medical records show the woman was complaining about contractions and labor pains more than 12 hours before giving birth on Sept. 27. While the records indicate she declined treatment, the woman told her attorneys that the jail personnel offered her prenatal vitamins and didn’t recognize the signs of labor until it was too late.
The law calls for pregnant inmates to be hospitalized once labor begins, and labor is defined in the law as “the period of time before a birth during which contractions are of sufficient frequency, intensity and duration” to show birth is imminent.
“She should have been taken to a hospital hours before she gave birth,” Weekes said. “Detention deputies didn’t call for nurses to come in until after her water broke, and by then it was too late to move her.”
The medical records show the baby was born sometime between 10:12 p.m. and 10:28 p.m.
The jailed woman had been accused of staying illegally in a Lighthouse Point home for a week while the owner was out of state. The owner called police, who went to arrest the woman Sept. 6. She resisted by kicking at the officers and rolling on the ground, according to the report, which makes no mention of the woman’s pregnancy.
Days after her arrest, after officials knew she was pregnant, the woman got into an altercation with detention deputies and was pepper-sprayed, Weekes said. Her physical aggressiveness was one of the factors cited in the medical report explaining why it was challenging for nurses and detention deputies to assess the woman’s condition.
But Weekes said the concern over the inmate’s behavior was an additional reason she should have been in a hospital rather than a jail cell.
“She was left alone in her cell while she was clearly screaming in pain,” he wrote. “Rather than make the appropriate health-related decisions to medically treat a mentally ill patient in crisis and tend to the needs of her unborn child, detention staff administered no medical assistance and merely stood idly by observing her pain from outside her cell.”
The sheriff’s office also opened an Internal Affairs investigation to determine whether the actions of detention deputies, as well as medical staff of Wellpath, the health care provider for the jails, violated policies or laws.
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