"She was wronged by the jail system": The infuriating case of a woman allegedly forced to give birth alone on a toilet

A woman says she was ignored by jail staff and gave birth "frightened and alone." She isn't the first

By Katie McDonough
Published April 10, 2015 6:17PM (EDT)

A woman in Washington state was forced to give birth on a jail cell toilet after guards ignored her requests for help, according to a lawsuit filed this week in federal court. Tawni Kosnosky alleges that, while incarcerated in 2013, guards at the Snohomish County Jail denied her medical attention despite the fact that she repeatedly hit the emergency button in her cell and called out in pain.

“I can’t explain why, when she started feeling pain in her stomach, they didn’t do anything,” Kenan Isitt, an attorney representing Kosnosky, told Seattle PI. “She just feels like she was wronged by the jail system.”

Kosnosky was arrested five days before she gave birth. She was around seven months pregnant at the time, and jail staff were aware of her pregnancy. She reported that she had not had any prior prenatal care, and was being monitored in the jail for heroin withdrawal.

According to her lawyer, jail records show that Kosnosky likely alerted the jail that she was experiencing severe stomach pain between noon and 1 p.m., and no later than 3:40 p.m. A medical team did not arrive until 4:25 p.m., after she had already given birth. She was then hospitalized before being returned to the jail. “They simply didn’t believe she was about to have a baby,” Isitt said.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton told the Herald newspaper that jail staff had been monitoring Kosnosky that day. “Things happened so quickly that they called 911,” Ireton said.

The suit alleges that the jail staff’s conduct caused Kosnosky extreme distress, though there is no dollar amount attached to the suit. This isn't the first time a woman has alleged that a jail or prison was ill-equipped to meet her medical needs while pregnant. Other lawsuits filed by women who were incarcerated while pregnant alleged they were denied medical care, access to doctors and appropriate food and supplements.

A recent report released by the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York found that access to reproductive health care in New York’s prison system was “shockingly substandard.” The report, based on a five-year study of conditions and interviews with women who were incarcerated, also found that women were routinely shackled during their pregnancies and sometimes childbirth despite a law banning shackling in the state.

From the report:

DOCCS is out of compliance with New York State law that bans the shackling of incarcerated women during childbirth: 23 of 27 women the CA surveyed who gave birth after the law went into effect said they were shackled at least once in violation of the statute. While DOCCS has made progress in curtailing the use of restraints after women arrive at the hospital until they give birth, women continue to be shackled on the way to the hospital (even when they are in labor), during recovery (even within hours after giving birth and for long periods of time), and on the way back to the prison (even with waist chains just days after having a C-section). In addition, every woman the CA heard from was shackled when she went on trips outside the prison during her pregnancy. Women described their experiences with shackling as “painful,” “horrible” and “degrading.”

In addition to being mistreated while incarcerated, a woman’s pregnancy has been used as grounds for harsher sentencing in some states. In 2014, a woman in Tennessee charged in connection with a meth manufacturing operation was handed an enhanced sentence because she was pregnant at the time. Lacey Weld was sentenced to just over 12 years in prison and five years of supervised release, and the judge on the case cited “substantial risk of harm to a minor” as the reason her sentence was extended by six years.

“These kinds of cases are brilliant distractions from the economic issues in which if you are struggling in low-paid work -- in horrifying and dangerous conditions that do not accommodate your pregnancy -- then too bad for you,” Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told Salon at the time of Weld’s sentencing. “In those cases, there is no state support. But we will spend money to lock up a woman for twice as long because she’s pregnant."

As the number of these cases rise, there is growing awareness of the problems pregnant women face while navigating the criminal justice system. Kosnosky hopes her lawsuit will help to wake people up to the problem and force reform, according to her lawyer.

“I’d really like to see the jails everywhere treat pregnant women better,” Isitt told Seattle PI. “It’s my belief that the jail doesn’t have the ability to take care of pregnant women. [Kosnosky] agrees with that.”

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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