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Alabama County Ends Controversial Policy Using Women’s Pregnancies to Jail Them

by Ashleigh N. Dye

In the state of Alabama, it is a felony to expose a child to an environment in which controlled substances are manufactured, ingested, or distributed. Called Chemical Endangerment, the crime can land a pregnant woman in jail after using drugs.

Ashley Banks, 23, was arrested on May 25, 2022, for carrying a pistol without a permit and possession of a small amount of marijuana. Normally she would remain free on bond to await trial. But Banks was pregnant. She also admitted to using marijuana on the day she found out she was pregnant. In Etowah County, that meant she must go to drug rehab, and she must remain at the county lockup until space opened up for her in a rehab program.

This was a common practice in the county, which includes Gadsden. Several pregnant women spent time behind bars after their newborns or fetuses tested positive for drugs. The bond conditions in these cases were unique for the rehab requirement and $10,000 cash bail. Thanks to this policy, the Etowah County Detention Center held pregnant and postpartum women at the jail quite regularly.

In an affidavit on Banks’ behalf to the county court hearing her case, Carolyn Sufrin, an expert on incarceration and an OB/GYN at John Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, listed what was wrong this policy.

“The stress and conditions in jail and prisons, including lack of consistent access to standard prenatal care and mental health care, poor diets, poor sanitation, infestations with bugs and vermin, poor ventilation... can be detrimental to physical and mental health which can result in poor pregnancy outcomes for both the mother and the baby,” Sufrin wrote.

The rehab condition put Banks in a Catch-22: She wasn’t an active drug abuser, so she didn’t qualify for a residential rehab program, but she couldn’t get out of jail until she was accepted into one. She was finally released on August 25, 2022, after three months in jail.

Attorneys from the nonprofit National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) argued on behalf of Banks, as well as four other pregnant women held at the jail. One, Hali Burns, was held the first two months after her son was born in July because of a positive drug test that she disputes. Three other women were freed on September 14, 15 and 16, NAPW said.

After that, the county changed its policy. Dropping the rehab requirement, it lowered the bond amount for those arrested for Chemical Endangerment to $2,500.

“Etowah County’s policy change is a meaningful first step,” said NAPW staff attorney Emma Roth. But she said her organization “will not stop fighting until substance use and pregnancy is treated as a matter of public health, not a reason to put mothers behind bars.” 

Source: Birmingham News

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