The rising rate of pregnant prisoners with COVID-19 in the Los Angeles County jail system reflects the grim COVID-jail statistics overall and highlights the grave risk of overcrowded jail systems in this time of COVID surges in California. As of now, more than 3500 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the LA County Jails and eight have died. Five pregnant prisoners have been infected with the illness. Pregnant prisoners report inhumane treatment that puts both expectant mothers and babies at risk.
Teresa Gomez learned that she was pregnant when she was incarcerated in August. On October 27, she experienced chills, fever and a headache. When she was diagnosed with COVID-19, she was placed in a filthy, windowless solitary confinement cell– housing usually used to discipline prisoners. She related to her attorneys that when she experienced extreme cramping, she was denied help and told by deputies to lie down. She was denied basic supplies like toilet paper for hours after she requested it. She was allowed out of her cell for just one hour/day to shower and make a phone call.
Pregnant prisoner Catrina Balderrama was also placed in solitary confinement when she tested positive for COVID-19. She was recently released and has since stated “There was no toilet paper or soap and there was old food under the bed and on the walls.” While in jail, a deputy told her she would soon be released, but then cruelly reneged, telling her “April Fools. See you later in hell when you die.”
Gomez, who remains in jail, related to attorneys that when she was released from the solitary isolation cell, she was denied her 20-week ObGyn medical appointment because she had tested positive for COVID. COVID delays have also prevented Gomez from attending court hearings. She has been in jail for four months with no adjudication of her case, and her next hearing date is set for January.
A team of attorneys and organizations, including Hadsell Stormer Renick and Dai, have filed a suit against LA County on behalf of incarcerated prisoners, claiming that prisoners are not able to protect themselves from COVID. Due to crowded jail facilities that make social distancing impossible and lack of access to proper PPE and cleaning materials.
Attorney Theresa Zhen of Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai is one of the attorneys representing the class of incarcerated prisoners. She said, of Ms. Gomez, “This woman found out she was pregnant when she got a pregnancy test in jail, and by January she’ll be something like seven months pregnant. Depending on whether that court appearance goes through… she could live out her entire pregnancy term in jail without having had a substantive legal proceeding.” Zhen emphasized, that there’s a very real “fear of living out your pregnancy term—this very special and critical point in your life and your baby’s life—in a facility where you have no control over the type of care you get, or even how you take care of yourself. That sets up very risky situations for the mother’s health and also the health of the child.”
Although the CDC has added pregnancy as a high-risk category for COVID — studies show that pregnant people “might be at increased risk for severe illness associated with coronavirus disease” — no special precautions are being taken to protect pregnant prisoners. Instead, they have been denied access to essential medical care.
Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel at the ACLU National Prison Project, is also involved in the COVID response litigation. He said, “There have been efforts to improve the conditions [in jails and prisons,] but the central fact is there are simply too many people being housed in too confined spaces to allow for the implementation of social distancing. Jails are congregate environments, they are environments where there are many people closely packed together,” he added. “Jails are sort of a perfect incubator for the rapid transmission of this disease.”
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