New Settlement Means Nutritious Meals for Pregnant Women at Allegheny County Jail

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New Settlement Means Nutritious Meals for Pregnant Women at Allegheny County Jail

Victoria Law

A suit filed last year charged the jail with the "cruel, unusual, and inhumane practice" of placing pregnant women in solitary confinement, where they spent at least 23 hours a day locked in a cell.

The practice of placing pregnant women in solitary confinement will be coming to an end, at least at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh. On Thursday, the county agreed to a settlement that changes the way its jail treats pregnant people in custody.

As Rewire reported in December 2016, the Abolitionist Law Center, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania and the Reed Smith Centre filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of five women who had been pregnant while being held at the jail. Their suit charged the jail with the “cruel, unusual, and inhumane practice” of placing pregnant women in solitary confinement, where they spent at least 23 hours a day locked in a cell. The suit also charged that placing the women in solitary without a hearing to determine whether they actually broke a rule violated their 14th Amendment right to due process. Finally, the lawsuit also charged that the jail provides an inadequate diet, inadequate nutrition, and inadequate nutritional supplements for pregnant women in its custody.

Those plaintiffs included people like Mia T. As reported earlier by Rewire, she entered the jail in May 2016 suspecting that she was pregnant. She requested and received a pregnancy test, but no one bothered to inform her of the results until after her two-day intake. She was then taken to an outside hospital for a second pregnancy test. There, she was kept overnight with her feet shackled to the bed, ostensibly to prevent her from escaping.

When she was brought back to the jail, she attempted to give her prescription medications to jail staff. The jail’s rules prohibit people in custody from holding onto their own medication and so Mia was charged with possession of contraband and sent to the Disciplinary Housing Unit, the jail’s isolation unit, where she was locked alone in a cell. One week later, she had a hearing where jail administrators determined that the pills were prescription medications and released her from isolation.

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Mia was placed in isolation three other times, usually while jail administrators tried to determine whether she’d broken a rule. When she was two months pregnant, jail staff placed her in isolation for 22 days while they investigated whether, despite having passed a drug test, she had smoked crack. During that time, she was allowed her toothbrush, but no toothpaste and no change of clothes. She was allowed to shower only twice. After three weeks, she was released from isolation with no hearing, explanation, or apology.

“It’s totally backwards—there’s punishment, then adjudication,” noted Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center.

In fact, Mia and three others were at the jail awaiting their day in court for allegedly violating the conditions of their probation. (The fifth had been awaiting transfer to a federal prison. She was transferred to the federal medical prison in Carswell, Texas, where she gave birth and where she remains incarcerated today.) Such is the case with as many as 81 percent of the jail’s population—most are there awaiting court dates and have not been convicted.

Under the terms of the settlement, the jail is replacing its current policy on treatment of pregnant and postpartum people with one that is more expansive and recognizes the shortcomings of its previous practices.

Through the new policy, the jail must refrain from placing pregnant people in solitary confinement (often called “restrictive housing”) for any action that is not an immediate safety concern. When pregnant people do wind up there—and at all other times—they must be provided with adequate hygiene items, such as toothpaste.

“They were being put in the hole [solitary confinement] without their hygiene items,” explained Grote.

Though the jail does provide pregnancy meals, Mia and others were often not given them while in isolation. Instead, the women were fed the jail’s regular meals. Now, the settlement also requires the jail to provide pregnant women with prenatal vitamins and pregnancy meals regardless of their location. The settlement ensures that pregnant women will be given pregnancy meals without having to request them; in addition, they are required to sign for their meals and vitamins in order to ensure they actually received them.

Pregnant women in isolation were also unable to buy foods or other items from the jail’s commissary (or prison store) to supplement their diets. As Mia had formerly described to Rewire, “You’re starving constantly. And you’re pregnant. [But] what can you do?”

Under the new policy, any pregnant woman denied access to commissary (or other supposed privileges, such as phone calls or visits) are entitled to a hearing within 24 hours. In other words, no longer will a pregnant woman have to wait weeks before jail officials determine whether she has broken a rule.

The jail offers one hour of out-of-cell time to people in its restrictive housing unit, but, until the settlement, there was no rule stipulating a time frame. Mia said that she was offered the one hour of recreation between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., an offer that she found absurd. “Who wants to be in the gym by themselves in the middle of the night?” she said.

The new policy, implemented as a result of the suit and ensuing settlement, requires that jail staff now offer pregnant women at least two hours of out-of-cell exercise time and that those two hours be between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. This is an important safeguard against the increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (or blood clots in the veins) that can develop during pregnancy.

The settlement also includes monitoring provisions to ensure compliance. At any time, the plaintiffs’ lawyers can request a current list of all pregnant women being held at the jail; such a list, said Grote, is already provided to the jail’s warden each week. Accessing the list will enable the monitoring attorneys to conduct spot checks on compliance by speaking with pregnant women directly. “If they report that they’re not getting their phone calls or adequate food, we can request additional documentation from the jail,” stated Grote. These additional documents can include complaints and allegations made against each pregnant person as well as documentations of actions by the jail staff.

The settlement also stipulates that, for the next three years, attorneys receive documentation about the placement of pregnant women in any type of restrictive housing, or housing units (including medical units) in which they are less able to move around. The documentation must include the reason for placing the woman under restriction and the number of days on restriction. In addition, the jail must provide the total number of misconducts (or times in which a rule was broken) which resulted in a pregnant woman losing her privileges (such as access to phone calls, commissary, or visits).

Finally, the settlement includes a $90,000 payment from the county to the plaintiffs and their attorneys.

A spokesperson for the county declined to comment on the settlement.

The terms of the settlement only apply to people who are pregnant or postpartum; other people in the jail will not benefit from these changes. However, as Mia stated shortly before the suit was filed, “The treatment I had, no one deserves to go through it. No pregnant woman should go through it.” Now, in part because of her, no other pregnant woman will, at least at the Allegheny County Jail.