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GA: Calls for Better Prenatal Care in Jails After Pregnant Mom Loses Baby

A recent lawsuit filed against Clayton County, Georgia, and Sheriff Kem Kimbrough has prompted human rights organizations and Georgia lawmakers to clamor for set guidelines for county jails across the state regarding the proper treatment of pregnant, incarcerated women.

Georgia's Department of Corrections incarcerates all pregnant 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 an on-site ultrasound..

But in county jails across the state, where most of the pregnant women there are awaiting trial and haven't been convicted of a crime, prenatal care is lacking and varies from jail to jail.

A lawsuit filed last summer by DeShawn Balka, who at 5 1/2-months pregnant was jailed for a probation violation for misdemeanor marijuana possession, says that Clayton County jail officials could have prevented what happened to Balka and her unborn baby.

For days, Balka suffered from dehydration and bleeding that she says jail officials ignored. Then, in the pre-dawn hours one morning, Balka sat for hours on a toilet in her jail cell, complaining of nausea and stomach pain. She began screaming for a nurse. Her baby was in the toilet. Balka's cellmates banged on the bars to get the attention of guards, but 75 minutes later Balka's baby, Inyx O'Neil Balka, was declared dead.

Clayton County officials say they provided adequate care for Balka, but none, including Kimbrough, have said anything else in light of the lawsuit. It's unknown if Clayton Counts has specific guidelines on prenatal care for prisoners, or if it has a written policy on the controversial practice of using leg restraints on pregnant prisoners. Either is unlikely, considering that fewer than half the county jails across Georgia have such policies.

Some counties treat expectant mothers in jail at least somewhat humanely. In Fulton County, in-house medical personnel have the authority to prescribe bed rest or prenatal vitamins. But in places like Cobb County and Cherokee County, pregnant prisoners are restrained during transport with leg irons or handcuffs in the front 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 15 states across the country have taken the "common sense" approach of banning shackling prisoners during labor, Florida began prohibiting shackles "during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery" in July 2012. A similar bill that would've applied to counties was proposed in Georgia, but it didn't get out of committee.

Balka and prisoner advocates. Including the ACLU of Georgia, say that balancing public safety with providing a healthy environment for pregnant women must be a priority. A prisoner "should always be treated like a human," Balka said, adding that Clayton County jail officials failed to properly document her condition, supply adequate nutrition, or perform proper fetal monitoring.

Fier lawyer, Michael Mills, said that Inyx died because of "fundamental flaws in the system.”

"For anybody to have their baby die because of a misdemeanor pot charge is completely ludicrous," he said, "Clearly, this is a problem, and something is wrong."

Sources: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution;

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