Prison Health Services Denied Care to Pregnant Women

A 24-year old woman, Joan Small, who lost her baby just days before her due date, is suing Collier County Florida Sheriff and Prison Health Services (PHS), alleging that they denied her the medical care needed to prevent the death of her unborn child.

According to Small’s troubles began September 2007 when she was arrested for possession of crack cocaine. She claims that her soon to be ex-husband had asked her to hold the crack when he was pulled over for a traffic violation. It was during that traffic stop that a search turned up the crack in her purse.

Small was given probation. She became pregnant in the spring of 2008.  In December 2008 she had her probation revoked when she returned home past curfew after attending a voluntary parenting class. She had no car so she depended on friends for rides. She contends that her probation officer knew of her transportation issues and that he also knew that this is why she was late returning home. Nevertheless, she was booked into jail nine months pregnant.

The day that she was arrested she was to receive a RhoGAM shot due to her being Rh-negative. The doctor had also ordered a ultrasound because he was worried the baby was not growing properly. The jail medical staff canceled her ultrasound appointment and ignored Small’s pleas for her RhoGAM shot. Denying her this important treatment not only put her current fetus at jeopardy but also put her at high risk for serious complications in subsequent pregnancies.

The jail medical staff also ignored Small’s complaints about a thick vaginal discharge for almost two weeks. A PHS progress report on Jan 28th noted vaginal spotting, but she was still not taken to be examined until five days later on Feb. 3rd. At this time a ultrasound was finally done and it showed that all of Small’s amniotic fluid had leaked out and the baby’s skull had collapsed as a result. Her baby was dead.

The doctor recommended that her baby be delivered immediately to prevent Small from becoming septic. This did not occur. Instead she was taken back to jail. She was not taken to the hospital until Feb. 5th after her attorney convinced a judge to release her because of her “grave” medical condition. Her dead baby was finally delivered by c-section and she was able to hold her daughter for the first and last time. Small had already started showing the first signs of being septic. Further delay could have led to her death.

Joan Small and Elias Guzman with pictures of their deceased newborn.

I can not imagine the desperation that Small must have felt while being locked in a cage when she had harmed no one and pleading for medical attention for her unborn child. I can not imagine the panic she must have felt as the baby’s movements and kicks came to a stop and no one would help her. It makes me sick to think of  the agony she must have felt while holding a dead baby when timely medical care would have led to her holding a living, breathing child, not just in that moment but everyday after.

Small is not alone. Several other women have suffered at the hands of Prison Health Services.  According to PHS has been sued before by women that have lost babies while in custody.

In November 2008, an Idaho jury awarded a woman and her son $3.6 million after the woman, a state inmate, gave birth on a prison ramp while being moved outside in a wheelchair. Her baby struck his head on a concrete ramp, his umbilical cord and placenta were run over by the wheelchair and he now has cerebral palsy.

In a case similar to Graeber’s, Lee County jail inmate Michelle Goebert’s lawsuit alleged that for 14 days after her 2001 arrest, she asked for medical help or to visit an obstetrician because she was leaking amniotic fluid and feared her baby would die. She was taken to the hospital, but had lost too much amniotic fluid for the baby to survive and it was stillborn. She received a confidential settlement in May 2008.

In April 2008, PHS settled a lawsuit filed by Ajadyan Venny of The Bronx for $210,000. She gave birth at the Albany County jail in 2001 as she sat bleeding on a toilet. A nursing supervisor assumed he was dead in the toilet, but ambulance technicians told guards to check the baby. He was scooped out and died at a hospital two days later.

In April 2007, Kimberly Grey of Tampa accepted a $1.25 million settlement from PHS as a federal jury was deliberating; the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office already had settled for $350,000. She delivered her boy over a jail cell toilet in 2004 after complaining of labor pains for nearly 12 hours; he died on the way to a hospital.

NOTE: Unless you want to get a troubling picture of how disgustedly non-compassionate people can be, I would not recommend reading the comments section of the above linked news article. Apparently many people seem to think that mere possession of a chemical deemed illegal by some bureaucrats (she never had a positive drug test) makes a woman unworthy of proper medical care and unworthy of a healthy child. The comments almost make me as sick as the actions of PHS.


Paula Parmeley Carter

Paula is a Staff Writer at CopBlock. She advocates ending the monopoly on policing and protection services. When not writing at CopBlock she enjoys being a wife and mother, reading and drinking good beer.