Female inmates at Santa Rita Jail allege they were coerced to have abortions

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Six current and former female inmates at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin filed suit in federal court in Oakland today alleging that Alameda County sheriff's deputies mistreated them and in some cases coerced them to have abortions.

The suit says the case "arises from a strong and highly reprehensible pattern and practice of aggressively misogynist, apparently programmatic, maltreatment of women prisoners -- so severe as to have resulted in two recent miscarriages and a third woman giving birth, alone and unattended, in a solitary confinement cell."

Yolanda Huang, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, accused sheriff's officials of "inhumane and barbaric treatment" of female inmates who are pregnant.

Donald Cunningham, the other attorney for the plaintiffs, said, 

"There's a hostile attitude on the part of the jail staff against women inmates for being pregnant. It seems like they are being nasty on purpose."

Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly strongly denied the lawsuit's allegations, saying they are "false claims" and "especially egregious."

"We're proud of the work we do with female inmates every day and follow the law" in handling women who are pregnant," Kelly said. "We would never condone an abortion or influence a decision that is one of theirs (a pregnant inmate's) to make."

Kelly said there haven't been any miscarriages by inmates in the last two months and he's checking with jail officials to see if there have been any in the past year.

He confirmed that an inmate who was in what jail officials describe as "administrative segregation" gave birth at Santa Rita recently but said the woman and her child are both doing well now.

Kelly said "a series of incidents" led to the woman giving birth alone in a cell, including a misdiagnosis when she was taken to a hospital shortly beforehand.

The suit against the sheriff's office, Alameda County, Sheriff Gregory Ahern and other sheriff's officials alleges that female inmates are repeatedly denied medical attention, warm clothing, blankets, nutritious food and fresh air, and that pregnant inmates have been told to agree to an abortion.

Speaking at a news conference outside the sheriff's headquarters in Oakland, Huang and Cunningham said the women are seeking injunctive relief under the U.S. and state constitutions and are asking the court to require a cessation of what they describe as "inhumane and sexually biased" treatment at Santa Rita.

The suit alleges that women inmates are subject to more restrictions and harsher treatment than male prisoners, including being held in holding cells for longer periods of time, being denied equal access to jobs outside the cell, limitations on classes and education, and subjected to more frequent strip searches and body cavity searches.

Huang said three inmates who are still pregnant are seeking an emergency court order to get proper medical attention, warm clothing, blankets, nutritious food and fresh air.

Huang said female inmates are supposed to receive healthy nutritious meals, but hardly any fresh fruit or vegetables are included in their diets.

However, sheriff's Cmdr. Thomas Madigan said pregnant inmates are given a special diet that includes more nutrition that other inmates get.

Plaintiff Christina Zepeda said at the news conference that she told officers when she was arrested for a probation violation in San Leandro last August that she was pregnant, but was still handcuffed with her hands behind her back and slid back and forth in the police ride to Santa Rita in Dublin.

Zepeda said she was nearly four months pregnant at the time but had to sleep on the floor in a holding cell with eight to 10 other women, and was awakened very early.

Zepeda said she suffered a miscarriage a short time later and she believes the conditions at the jail contributed to that.