On Wednesday, AL.com reported that a pregnant 23-year-old woman had been held in a jail for three months in Etowah County, Alabama. The reason for her imprisonment is a county rule that requires pregnant women arrested on drug charges to go through rehab and post $10,000 in cash bail before they can leave.
The woman, Ashley Banks, was arrested on charges of chemical endangerment of her fetus. She admitted she had smoked pot the day she learned she was pregnant, around six weeks into the pregnancy. Despite being ordered to attend rehab, the rehab center refused to take her, saying she didn’t meet a level of need that would warrant treatment. This left her stuck in jail, even after she developed a pregnancy complication that left her bleeding for weeks.
After a certain point, Banks alleged, she had to sleep on the floor. She spent those three months living in unsanitary and stressful conditions—conditions that increase the risk of pregnancy complications—despite not yet being convicted of any crimes. (In addition to the marijuana, she was arrested for having an unregistered gun and for failing to appear in court for an earlier property theft charge.) She continued to sleep on the floor until she was released by a judge in late August.
She’s not alone. According to AL.com, this Etowah County bond condition has affected a number of other women. The Etowah County Detention Center typically holds several pregnant and postpartum women in jail in these prenatal “chemical endangerment” cases, despite the higher rates of miscarriages for incarcerated women. The National Advocates for Pregnant Women told AL.com it had found more than 150 such cases in the county since 2010. And far from “protecting” women or their in utero offspring, families have complained that the jail could be considered a higher-risk place for drug abuse, given the stress and depression inmates face. At least one person has died from a suspected overdose at the Etowah County jail.
Had these women not been pregnant, they would have been able to post bail and leave. But Alabama has a history of placing pregnant women in a different legal category. Chemical endangerment laws that apply to women who have used drugs during a pregnancy can carry stiff penalties; According to AL.com, if the pregnancies result in a miscarriage or stillbirth, women can face up to 99 years in prison.
According to the AL.com article, another woman, Hali Burns, tested positive for drugs during her pregnancy and was arrested after giving birth. After she was sent to jail, she had to stuff paper towels into her pants to cope with the bleeding. Two months later, AL.com reported, Burns remains in jail following her medically risky postpartum period.
Alabama is not known for having the most humane incarceration system, but the Etowah County Detention Center has had a particularly dark history. Some of the allegations inmates have directed at the center over the past couple decades include unusually long stays, poor medical care, and no access to any outdoor spaces. The most common complaint, though, has been of malnourishment. A number of people who went through the jail complained of barely edible food, sometimes rotten, expired, or even “insect-infested.” Some said they had gotten food poisoning. Others claimed to have lost significant amounts of weight. One person told AL.com at the time that “salads were made with rotten lettuce, we had beans every day and noodles with no taste.” Others recalled eating porridge and bread.
In 2018, AL.com reported that the sheriff of Etowah County had pocketed around $1.5 million from a fund meant to feed inmates. The sheriff, Todd Entrekin, had not violated state law as it was written—the Depression-era law was meant for a time when the sheriff and his wife were personally responsible for feeding inmates—but it soon became apparent that he had cut corners with meals, possibly in order to purchase a beach house. Entrekin was voted out of office after the reporting came out.
Many of the inmates who suffered through poor conditions at the Etowah County jail were stuck in immigration purgatory. From 1997 until March of this year, Etowah County served as a detention center for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This helped the institution’s finances: By around 2011, the jail had become profitable for the sheriff, with federal funding swelling to match the growing immigrant population. In recent years, an average of 300 ICE detainees were held in the jail at a time, with the federal government paying $45 per inmate per day.
In March, citing “a long history of serious deficiencies identified during facility inspections,” ICE announced it would no longer send detainees to Etowah. Before that happened, one immigrant alleged that he was placed in solitary confinement for two months because he asked for a COVID test. He was not alone in feeling the jail was not taking COVID seriously enough, and for pregnant women, that concern carries extra urgency. Medical professionals urged the facilities not to hold pregnant women, given the higher rates of complications and even miscarriage that come with COVID.
Correction, Sept. 12, 2022: This post originally stated that Hali Burns was in the hospital. She is, in fact, still in jail.