Jailed for her child's own good?

District judge sentences woman to give birth in federal prison


Lynn Harris
June 3, 2009 9:04PM (UTC)

A judge in Bangor, Maine -- ignoring federal guidelines -- has doubled the sentence of a Cameroonian woman charged with possession of false immigration documents. Was there something extra-heinous about the nature of her crime? No. Despite protests from the defense and the prosecution, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock sentenced Quinta Layin Tuleh, 28, to 238 days in prison -- twice her time served, which would be standard sentencing practice here -- because she is HIV-positive and pregnant. Her release date, in fact, is her due date. From today's Bangor Daily News: "Woodcock said the sentence would ensure that Tuleh's baby, due Aug. 29, has a good chance of being born free of the AIDS virus."

Woodcock reportedly informed Tuleh at her May 14 sentencing that he intended the longer term not as punishment for her, but as protection for her unborn child. He said that the defendant was more likely to receive medical treatment and follow a drug regimen in federal prison than out on her own or in the custody of immigration officials," says the News, adding that his decision, he said, was based entirely on her HIV status; if she were pregnant but HIV-negative, he'd have left it at time served. (Some drug regimens have proven effective at preventing HIV transmission from mother to fetus.)

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The Maine Civil Liberties Union said they were sympathetic to Judge Woodcook's motives, and acknowledged that he may have felt hamstrung, in part, by certain vagaries of federal immigration law. (In many similar cases, for one thing, defendants are sentenced to time served and then turned over for deportation.)

But. "Judges cannot lock a woman up simply because she is sick and pregnant," said MCLU legal director Zachary Heiden. "[J]ailing someone is punishment -- it is depriving them of liberty. That deprivation has to be justified, and illness or pregnancy is not justification for imprisonment."

Nor is federal prison the Mayo Clinic. ("The Bureau of Prisons is not well-designed to accomplish necessarily the end of providing medical care to a defendant and her unborn child," U.S. Attorney Todd Lowell argued at the sentencing hearing.) And indeed, Tuleh's attorney had, in fact, arranged for her to receive care at a comprehensive HIV and AIDS care center in Portland while her case was pending. Woodcock said no.

"My obligation is to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant," Woodcock stated, "and that public, it seems to me at this point, should likely include that child she's carrying. I don't think that the transfer of HIV to an unborn child is a crime technically under the law, but it is as direct and as likely as an ongoing assault. If I were to know conclusively that upon release from imprisonment a defendant was going to assault another person, I would act in a fashion to prevent that, and similar to an assault, causing grievous injury to a wholly innocent person. And so I think I have the obligation to do what I can to protect that person, when that person is born, from permanent and ongoing harm."

If Tuleh's child is indeed born here, he or she would be a U.S. citizen. But an immigration expert told the News that an infant would most likely be deported along with the mother.

Tuleh's sentence has been appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

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Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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