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$975,000 Award to Former Prisoner Who Gave Birth in Seattle, Washington Jail

A federal jury in Washington State has awarded $975,000 to a mentally ill woman who gave birth in a cell at the King County Correctional Facility (KCCF). The jury found both the county and jail staff liable on federal constitutional and state law negligence claims.

Imka Pope was sleeping in a city bus shelter when she was arrested for criminal trespass on November 15, 1997 and booked into KCCF. It was immediately apparent that she was not only pregnant, but also suffering from mental illness. Her initial jail assessment disclosed she was exhibiting such illogical and disorganized thought processes that staff were unable to communicate with her or determine her name.

Several KCCF staff members screened Pope. Jail employee Vicki Shumaker performed an intake screening, registered nurse (RN) Sean Dumas performed a medical screening and RN James Ilika conducted a psychological intake screening. None of them noted on their respective forms that Pope was pregnant, nor did they refer her for additional evaluation or treatment.

The day after her arrest, RN Paul Jerksey saw Pope for a “psychiatric housing initial assessment.” He noted that she was mentally ill and talked to herself “constantly.”
Following that assessment Pope was placed in an isolation cell, where she neglected her personal hygiene and refused to leave. Jail employees observed that she “decompensated” but provided no care other than having medical and security staff check on her periodically.

Guard Todd McComas conducted fifteen-minute checks on Pope on November 21, 1997. She informed him that she was pregnant and going into labor. “McComas walked away without even telling Ms. Pope that he would get help for her, and he did nothing for her until after she had given birth alone in her cell,” according to an amended complaint in a lawsuit filed on Pope’s behalf.

The county’s own jail-practices expert concluded that KCCF staff “probably did this because they believe she’s just mentally ill, she’s just pretending to have a baby.”
The lawsuit was not filed until 2007, but because Pope was incompetent or disabled to such a degree that she could not understand the nature of the legal claims, the statute of limitations was tolled.

On February 3, 2012, a U.S. District Court jury found that Pope’s right to adequate medical treatment had been violated, and McComas, Jerksey, Dumas, guard Doyle Hustead and nurse Marieclaire Healy were liable under constitutional or negligence claims. McComas and Hustead were also held liable on a claim of outrage, while Ilika was found not liable. King County was held liable for failing to adequately train and supervise staff at the jail.

The jury awarded $850,000 in compensatory damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress, plus punitive dam-ages of $50,000 against McComas and $75,000 against Hustead, for a total of $975,000. The awards will be paid from the county’s risk-management fund.

Pope was homeless and had been living in California, but her attorneys brought her to Seattle prior to the trial. Before the verdict was entered, she was begging for change. See: Pope v. McComas, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:07-cv-01191-RSM.

Additional sources: Seattle Times, Huffington Post

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Related legal case

Pope v. McComas