Report Decries Ongoing Inadequate Medical Care for Pregnant Arizona Prisoners
by Matt Clarke
ACLU and Prison Law Office attorneys representing Arizona state prisoners toured the Perryville prison for three days in April 2019, interviewing 25 women who had recently given birth or suffered miscarriages in prison. The report they gave the court describes “shocking and horrifying” stories of a “deficient” and “dangerous” lack of prenatal and postnatal care with some women needlessly miscarrying and others giving birth alone in their cells.
“They are being horribly mistreated by the health care staff and the custody staff,” said Prison Law Office attorney Corene Kendrick. “They’re not being provided adequate nutrition. They’re not being given adequate hygiene supplies. The postpartum depression mental health care is minimal, if existent at all.”
The state Department of Corrections (DOC) is under a federal court order to improve health and mental health care to its 33,000 prisoners, pursuant to a 2015 class-action settlement reached with the ACLU and Prison Law Office on behalf of prisoners they represented in Parsons v. Ryan.
The attorneys’ visit followed similar tours beginning in December 2018, which have also taken them to state prisons in Florence, Tucson, Phoenix and Eyman. The attorneys put their findings into letters delivered in May 2019 by ACLU and Prison Law Office to invoke – for the first time - their plaintiffs’ rights under the 2015 Parsons settlement to suggest corrective action against DOC’s health care provider, Nashville-based Corizon Health, the nation’s second-largest private prison contractor with at least $1 billion in annual revenue.
In their letters the attorneys reported pregnant prisoners being given only an extra peanut butter sandwich and glass of milk to supplement their diet, which has limited access to fruits and vegetables. Corizon gave them only thin panty liners to deal with bleeding despite a 2018 DOC policy change to up the number of sanitary pads provided pregnant prisoners from 12 to 36.
The attorneys also discovered breaches of other DOC policies. For instance, one pregnant woman who was miscarrying was shackled while being transported to a hospital. Arizona state law prohibits the shackling of pregnant prisoners. The prison also failed to give pregnant heroin users methadone.
“Proper treatment for women who have reported using heroin when they were pregnant is to immediately put them on methadone,” said Kendrick. “That’s to manage any withdrawals and to also mitigate the possibility of miscarriage.”
One prisoner, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was seven months’ pregnant when she arrived at the prison, gave birth on the toilet alone in her solitary cell. Three days earlier, she had reported that her water had broken and was taken to a hospital, but she was returned to the prison the same day without any paperwork from the hospital, and taken to her cell instead of the infirmary.
“She went into labor and was screaming and banging on the door,” said Kendrick, “All the other women around her woke up and started screaming and banging on their doors,” but it took 15 to 20 minutes for a guard to arrive, only to find the delivery had already taken place.
The report found that postpartum depression was not being treated. “What we found with postpartum depression and mental health care in general is that they were very quick and perfunctory encounters,” said Kendrick. “These women have just given birth. They’re giving up their children for an indefinite amount of time. Obviously, they need more than two or three minutes of therapy or counseling.”
In their suggestions, the attorneys said Corizon employee Dr. Vicente Enciso, the Perryville prison’s OB-GYN, should be held accountable for poor medical care. Kendrick said her office had received complaints about Enciso as far back as 2011. One particularly egregious case involved a woman whose C-section wound became infected and was treated by packing the wound with sugar instead of being taken to a hospital.
No reliable government statistics on pregnancy in prisons and jails in every state have been collected since 2004, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. At that time the share of female prisoners who were pregnant in federal, state and local lockups was 3 percent, 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
Sadly, poor health care for pregnant women and even giving birth in a cell is nothing new for Perryville prisoners. In 1988, Dena Dugan, then 21, gave birth in her cell with a guard assisting. Dugan had told a nurse she might be pregnant, but the nurse refused to give her a pregnancy test after failing to detect a fetal heartbeat with a stethoscope.
Sources: kjzz.org, azcentral.com, afsc.org, theatlantic.com, Prison Policy Initiative
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