Editorial: Escambia County must do more to protect pregnant inmates from COVID-19

opinionEditorial Board Pensacola News JournalPublished 8:00 AM EDT Aug 29, 2020Last week, the PNJ's Kevin Robi

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Last week, the PNJ's Kevin Robinson delivered important reporting about COVID-19's threat against pregnant women who are incarcerated in the Escambia County Jail. Any citizen who cares about the least among us or the lives of unborn children should get engaged in this ongoing dilemma.      

Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers recently sounded the alarm after she learned there are eight expectant mothers currently at the jail. Jails and prisons have been hot spots for explosions of COVID-19 cases and research has shown that pregnant women face increased risk of hospitalization from the disease. 

"My question is are we exposing a pregnant woman and her baby to what could potentially be a life-threatening situation over some non-violent crime?" Myers said. "That just seems, to me, to be unreasonable when you can put an ankle bracelet on somebody (and release them)."

Myers rightly argues that pregnant women — who were likely charged with nonviolent crimes — do not pose a safety threat to the citizens of Escambia County or a serious flight risk from law enforcement. On the other hand, Myers says the confined environment during a COVID outbreak is a serious threat to both the incarcerated mother and her innocent unborn child. 

Escambia County currently operates the jail after it tool over management from the Sheriff's Department following an explosive public dispute about funding several years ago. That's why Myers contacted Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley about the issue. 

Gilley replied in an email, saying: "During their stay with us at the Escambia County Jail, pregnant females go to scheduled OB visits along with scheduled high risk clinic visits. As with all inmates, the pregnant females have been provided masks and soap along with education about COVID that is available on the kiosk for every inmate. We are also continuing to follow the guidelines recommended by the CDC for jails. In addition, we have a daily sick call in which the inmates can seek care from our Medical to address their issues."

Myers said she had trouble getting more information from the county and that health records laws prevent the public from knowing the identities of the pregnant inmates in order to contact them directly. 

However, following publication of Robinson's initial reporting on this issue, Myers said she was contacted by a father of one of the pregnant inmates who confirmed that his daughter was incarcerated due to a minor, non-violent offense and the inability to afford bond or a private attorney.

This is a sad story common among too many citizens who are incarcerated in America. It's not that their crimes were violent or that they pose a danger to society — it's that they are simply too poor to pay the arbitrary fees that would allow them to stay out of prison. So we lock them up instead. Away from family and away from jobs. Away from assistance that could help them improve their lives or break addictions. Taxpayers foot the expensive bill and one of society's most vicious, man-made cycles continues. 

And as Councilwoman Myers has shone a light on, these pregnant women and their unborn children have been caught up in this man-made cycle, as well, which now includes the added threat of COVID-19.

In his reporting, Robinson spoke to Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, who is an OB-GYN, researcher and author at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. She has written about the plight of pregnant women in incarceration and led a pioneering study on the number and outcomes of prison pregnancies across the nation. 

Sufrin said a "best practice is pretrial diversion, and especially prioritizing pregnant people for not going to jail in the first place."


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