The ordeal of a woman who gave birth in an isolation cell in a Florida jail has prompted an internal investigation, and has set off a wave of outrage after her lawyers said her repeated cries for help were ignored.
The woman, Tammy Jackson, 35, woke up with painful contractions around 3 a.m. on April 10 and started to bang on the door of her Broward County jail cell, screaming for help, said a lawyer representing her, Gordon Weekes Jr. She ended up spending seven hours without medication or seeing a doctor, he said.
“She was forced to crouch down and just catch the baby,” Mr. Weekes said in an interview. “That is offensive to humanity for her to have to do that.”
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office said that after the delivery, a doctor and two nurses attended to the mother and her baby girl. “Internal Affairs immediately launched an internal investigation into inmate Tammy Jackson’s delivery,” Gina Carter, a spokeswoman for the office, said in a statement.
Ms. Carter said that Ms. Jackson, who was charged in January with possession of cocaine, had been in an isolation cell because she was pregnant. Ms. Carter declined to answer further questions about the case.
In a letter to the Broward County sheriff, Mr. Weekes and another lawyer, Howard Finkelstein, described Ms. Jackson as “mentally ill,” writing, “It remains to be seen how this gross negligence will affect Ms. Jackson’s already fragile mental health.”
“The trauma of the delivery is still weighing on her,” Mr. Weekes said in the interview. “It was very traumatic for her to have to figure out how to deliver that baby all by herself.”
According to a letter Ms. Jackson’s lawyers sent to the Broward sheriff, the jail staff tried to reach an on-call doctor at 3:16 a.m. Hours later, Ms. Jackson was still in labor in her cell, alone, the lawyers said.
At 7:22 a.m., the letter said, the jail staff got in touch with a doctor who said he would check on Ms. Jackson when he arrived at the jail. An hour and 38 minutes later, Ms. Jackson told the jail staff that she was bleeding, but she was still kept in her cell, the lawyers said. Nearly 7 hours after initially asking for help, the letter said, a staff member told medical personnel at the jail that Ms. Jackson was holding a baby in her arms.
When a woman goes into labor, many things can go wrong. Black women like Ms. Jackson are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications as white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And jails are not necessarily equipped to handle an inmate in need of medical care, according to Jens David Ohlin, the vice dean and a law professor at Cornell Law School.
“It is a little bit different when you have someone in a jail or someone in temporary custody as opposed to someone in a prison,” Mr. Ohlin said. “If someone is in a prison, there is infirmary staff and well-developed services and care would be readily available then. Things are complicated when someone is in a jail.”
Mr. Weekes said that Ms. Jackson told him that while she was in labor, she was worried that she was not going to deliver using the appropriate birthing method because she had had a cesarean section in the past. Mr. Weekes added that Ms. Jackson also said her biggest fear was that the pressure from her attempts to push the baby out vaginally would rip her C-section scar open.
“She beared down and knew that she had to do something,” Mr. Weekes said, adding that Ms. Jackson could feel her C-section scar stretching. “She was trying to figure out how she is going to survive this and how the baby will survive. She just beared down and found a way.”
Guards at the jail did not notice that Ms. Jackson had given birth until they found her in her cell holding the baby at 10 a.m., according to her lawyers.
“It sounds to me that they did not handle the situation appropriately, because if they couldn’t get the doctor to come more promptly, they should have gone back and assessed the situation,” Mr. Ohlin said, “and if necessary, they could have called 911 and they didn’t do that.”
The case drew national attention. Senator Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate, called it “outrageous.”
“Prison officials must be held accountable after leaving Ms. Jackson alone without medical assistance,” Ms. Harris wrote on Twitter.
The baby is currently living with a family member, and Ms. Jackson hopes to reunite with her, Mr. Weekes said. Ms. Jackson is scheduled to be arraigned on May 8, when Mr. Weekes said he would request that she be released from jail.