Federal judge criticizes Alameda Co. Sheriff over treatment of pregnant inmate

Candace Steel and her daughter, Hope, in November 2018

A federal judge has found that the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office treated a jailed pregnant woman with “deliberate indifference,” and now, the county and the woman are set to mediate their legal fight instead of taking the case to trial.

Candace Steel gave birth while being held alone in a cell in Santa Rita jail in Dublin in 2017. She says her screams for help were ignored, and has sued the sheriff's department. The sheriff's attorneys attempted to get the case dismissed, but a judge ruled last month that the case can now move forward.

 “The defendants intentionally isolated [Candace] Steel in a cell, and ignored her while she gave birth,” U.S. District Judge James Donato wrote in his ruling. “A higher degree of indifference to a pretrial detainee’s medical needs is hard to imagine.”

Donato did not formally issue a judgment, but his sentiments are an important legal hurdle for Steel’s team. Her attorneys are scheduled to have a settlement conference with county counsel in May.  

 “This is a very good outcome,” Steel’s Oakland-based attorney Yolanda Huang said in an interview on Tuesday. 

The sheriff’s attorney, Temitayo O. Peters from the firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP, did not respond for comment. Sgt. Ray Kelly said the sheriff's office had no comment. 

In a prior interview with KTVU, Sheriff Gregory Ahern and his staff disputed Steel's account. In general, Ahern gave Santa Rita an "A" in terms of how he and his staff address women's needs. He also gave KTVU a rare tour of the jail, showing off Santa Rita's dental, OB-gyn and dialysis clinics, all of which looked organized, well equipped and like traditional doctor’s offices. “It goes all the way from first aid to advance care dentistry,” Ahern said at the time. “We want to make sure the inmates get the best care that we have here. We’re responsible for their care, custody and control.” 

Women sue Santa Rita over humiliating treatment

“A higher degree of indifference to a pretrial detainee’s medical needs is hard to imagine.”

— U.S. District Judge James Donato

When 2 Investigates reported on Steel’s case in November 2018, she was one of at 28 other women who sued the sheriff’s office since 2014, all alleging civil rights violations, medical malpractice and emotional distress.

Through tears, she described what giving birth in an isolation cell was like. 

“I was hitting that call button like a million, bazillion times and nobody answered,” Steel said back then. “They ignored me completely. I noticed they shut the little window to muffle my screams because I was screaming, ‘Help me! Help me! My baby’s coming!’”

A closer look at the 40 inmates who have died at Santa Rita Jail 

The isolation cell at Santa Rita where Candace Steel gave birth in July 2017

The judge agreed that Steel had not been given any assistance or care during the delivery of her baby girl, Hope, on July 23, 2017. Steel had told deputies that she was experiencing severe cramping and pain and could only crawl around on her hands and knees. Other inmates saw her in distress. Deputies ended up taking Steel to see a CFMG nurse contracted by the jail, who concluded her cervix wasn’t dilated and Steel had “nothing but a stomach ache.”

Since the nurse also said she was exaggerating her distress, deputies moved Steel to an isolation cell. Steel spent hours screaming in pain, alone and unattended, before giving birth, she said.

Santa Rita has a higher jail death rate than Los Angeles 

Hope was born with her umbilical cord around her neck, and Steel had to stick her fingers in her infant’s mouth to get her to breathe. Deputies went into Steel’s cell only after they heard the baby cry.

During this whole time, Steel received only a “modicum” of care, the judge wrote.

“The critical point is that plaintiffs did not receive adequate care at the time they needed it most,” the judge wrote. He also found the nurse’s ultimate diagnosis of a stomach ache as “egregious.”

The sheriff’s attorneys had argued that this was a “one-time incident,” and the sheriff’s office wasn’t responsible.

But the judge disagreed, writing that he sees a larger problem with the decision by Alameda County to outsource the medical care of inmates under a CFMG contract. He said this arrangment is a “conscious” act and goes far beyond the pregnancy of just one woman.

Donato noted that San Francisco and Contra Costa counties have chosen alternative paths – namely their own county health departments – to provide healthcare in the jails.

“Taken as a whole,” the judge wrote, “these factual allegations amply support [Steel’s] claims that there was a financial incentive and imperative for CFMG to refuse and withhold inpatient hospitalization services to all inmates, including inmates in active labor.”