A Texas woman claims she was forced to give birth in solitary confinement while she was being imprisoned for a drug violation, and the lack of adequate medical care she received resulted in her baby’s death. Now, two years later, she’s filing a federal lawsuit against Wichita County for medical malpractice.
Nicole Guerrero alleges that the employees at the Wichita County Jail ignored her signs of labor, didn’t respond to her repeated requests for medical attention, failed to transport her to a hospital, and left her alone in a solitary confinement cell to give birth. She says that ordeal caused her to suffer “severe and likely permanent physical and psychological injuries,” particularly because her baby did not survive delivery.
According to the lawsuit, Guerrero — who was arrested on a drug possession charge — was about 32 weeks pregnant when she entered the Wichita County Jail. Two weeks later, she began experiencing contractions. But Guerrero claims that a detention officer simply sent her back to her cell. As Guerrero’s symptoms worsened, she says she repeatedly pushed the “medical emergency” button and was ignored for more than three hours. Then, she was taken to solitary confinement.
“Subsequently, detention officers escorted Plaintiff to the ‘cage’ and she was given a mat to lay on. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff’s pain worsened, and she began to experience intense pressure… in obvious distress, began to moan, scream and cry,” the suit claims. “She also attempted to talk herself through this ordeal, since she was not receiving any medical assistance.”
The lawsuit alleges that one of the jail’s detention officers, Ladonna Anderson, ignored Guerrero’s screams as she began to deliver her baby. It wasn’t until the baby’s head had already emerged that Anderson came in to help. The umbilical cord was wrapped around Guerrero’s baby’s neck, and she claims that Anderson didn’t make any attempt to perform CPR. Guerrero and her newborn were finally transported to the hospital, where the baby was pronounced dead. According to the Wichita Times Record News, Anderson’s medical license expired about five months before this incident occurred.
Guerrero’s allegations are not entirely unusual. In 2005, a Maryland woman — who was also arrested on a drug charge late in her pregnancy — sued after she was forced to give birth in dirty jail cell that contained only a toilet and a bed with no sheets.
And more broadly, women often face significant challenges to giving birth in prison. Female inmates typically aren’t afforded the full spectrum of reproductive options available to the women who aren’t incarcerated. For instance, many female inmates are shackled during labor, a practice that doctors have condemned as unsafe and human rights leaders have compared to torture. Reproductive justice activists have fought hard to put an end to this practice, and so far, 18 states have passed bans on the shackling of pregnant inmates.
These issues of reproductive justice are increasingly relevant in the criminal justice system. The prison population is becoming disproportionately female, and an estimated one in 33 inmates are pregnant when they’re admitted to federal prisons. As the War on Drugs continues to criminalize pregnant women, many of these female inmates are low-income women of color who are arrested on drug charges rather than admitted to drug treatment centers.