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Calls for Better Pregnancy Care in Georgia Jails after Death of Prisoner’s Baby

A lawsuit filed against Clayton County, Georgia and the county’s sheriff, Kem Kimbrough, has prompted human rights organizations and Georgia lawmakers to examine guidelines for the treatment of pregnant women held in jails across the state.

Georgia’s Department of Corrections (GDOC) incarcerates all pregnant state prisoners at the Helms Transitional Center in Atlanta. There, according to GDOC officials, they receive 24-hour care from nurses, see an OB/GYN on a weekly basis and have access to on-site ultrasound equipment.

But in county facilities, which house most pregnant women who are awaiting trial, prenatal care varies from jail to jail and is often lacking.

A lawsuit filed in state court in June 2012 by DeShawn Nicole Balka, 25, who was 5½ months pregnant and jailed in Clayton County for a probation violation for misdemeanor marijuana possession, claims that jail officials could have prevented what happened to her and her unborn baby had she received adequate care for her high-risk pregnancy.

For days, Balka suffered from dehydration and cramping that she said was ignored by jail officials. Then, in the pre-dawn hours of April 28, 2012, she sat for hours on a toilet in her cell, complaining of nausea and stomach pain. She began screaming for a nurse when her baby was born in the toilet. Her cellmates banged on the bars to get the attention of guards, but DeShawn’s baby, Inyx O’Neil Balka, did not survive.

Clayton County officials have said they provided adequate medical care, but none, including Sheriff Kimbrough, have stated anything else in light of the lawsuit. It is unknown whether Clayton County has specific guidelines on prenatal care for prisoners or a written policy on the controversial practice of using restraints on pregnant prisoners. Fewer than half the county jails in Georgia have such policies.

Some counties treat pregnant prisoners at least somewhat humanely. In Fulton County, jail medical staff can prescribe prenatal vitamins or bed rest. But in places like Cobb County and Cherokee County, pregnant prisoners are restrained with leg irons or handcuffs while being transported and forced to wear chain belts around their waists.

Cobb County Jail Col. Don Bartlett said restraints depend on a prisoner’s charges and her behavior, but that “it comes down to common sense more than anything.”

At least 17 states across the country have taken the “common sense” approach of banning the practice of shackling prisoners during labor. [See: PLN, Sept. 2012, p.14]. Florida began prohibiting shackles “during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery” in July 2012, while legislation passed in California on September 28, 2012 expanded that state’s ban on shackling pregnant prisoners to forbid the use of “leg irons, waist chains and handcuffs behind the body on women who are pregnant or who are in recovery following the birth of a child unless deemed necessary for the safety of the inmate, the staff, or the public.”

A similar bill introduced in Georgia in 2011 would have applied to pregnant women held in county jails, but the legislation didn’t get out of committee.

Balka and prisoner advocates, including the ACLU of Georgia, noted that public safety must be balanced with providing a healthy environment for pregnant women. Prisoners “should always be treated like a human,” Balka said, adding that Clayton County officials had failed to properly document her pregnancy, supply adequate nutrition or perform proper fetal monitoring.

Her attorney, Michael Mills, said that Inyx’s death was due to “fundamental flaws in the system.”

“For anybody to have their baby die because of a misdemeanor pot charge is completely ludicrous,” he added. “Clearly, this is a problem, and something is wrong.” Balka’s lawsuit against the county and Sheriff Kimbrough, which was removed to federal court on July 27, 2012, remains pending. See: Balka v. Clayton County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:12-cv-02599-ODE.

Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution,, Huffington Post

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Related legal case

Balka v. Clayton County