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Advocates Ask Judge for Emergency Transfer of Pregnant Inmates at Santa Rita Jail

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Ellen Barry, founder of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Nobel Award nominee, and plaintiff Christina Zepeda, who miscarried while at Santa Rita Jail. (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

Pregnant women are facing inhumane treatment at Santa Rita Jail in the East Bay city of Dublin, according to six current and former inmates, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and longtime inmate advocate, and the former opioid treatment program coordinator for the jail who resigned in protest.

The group filed a motion for an injunction on Tuesday asking a U.S. District Court judge to immediately transfer three women who remain in jail, one pregnant with twins, to community placements.

In a sworn statement in support of the new action, the founder of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Ellen Barry -- who was 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."

Authorities at Santa Rita Jail vehemently deny maltreatment of pregnant prisoners and vow to fight the claims in court.

The complaint details a variety of hostile and arduous conditions "so severe as to have resulted in two recent miscarriages, and a third woman giving birth, alone and unattended, in a solitary confinement cell -- at the Alameda County jail at Santa Rita, California."


Of the approximately 2,500 daily inmates in Alameda County, 250 are women, and five to 10 are pregnant at any given time.

The motion describes the experiences of six of those inmates with blocked access to obstetric care, inadequate food, "disturbed sleep, and regular intimidation, harassment and physical abuse in the form of frequent strip searches, body cavity searches and incarceration in solitary confinement cells, [being] held outdoors or in cold, concrete holding cells without adequate clothing and encouragement and coercion to abort their fetus."

Plaintiff Christina Zepeda says she was four months pregnant when she spent hours in a holding cell during a trip to court, which she says caused her to miscarry after just four days at Santa Rita.

"Everything's concrete, I'm over here in a fetal position on the floor laying in a ball because I can't stand no more, it's over eight hours, you know. So, I'm sleeping on the floor with another pregnant woman. It's just hard," says Zepeda, "You know, I planned for the child, I wanted the child, and it affects me a lot."

Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly says the jail gives pregnant prisoners double the food rations and the same obstetric care that any woman would receive in the community via its own in-house maternity clinic. In fact, he asserts, it's better care than many of the inmates would have been getting on the outside.

"A lot of attorneys know that government has deep pockets and that they're willing to write big checks to pay off these lawsuits. We're not going to do that in this case," Kelly says. "We are parents, we are people of this community that care about our mothers and the women that we're working with."

Kelly praised the jail's work with opioid-addicted mothers. However, included in the complaint by attorneys Yolanda Huang and Dennis Cunningham is expert testimony from the jail's former Opioid Treatment Program coordinator, Savannah O'Neill, who made several complaints after watching two expectant mothers endure detox because they were denied methadone, contrary to recommendations by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

"Faced with what I considered to be unethical medical treatment of pregnant inmates that falls below the accepted standard of care," says O'Neill in her statement, "I tendered my resignation effective Dec. 6, 2017."

The sheriff's office has three weeks to officially respond to the charges.

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