Pregnant woman torso with hands in cuffs against blue background

Woman Sues Alabama Prison for Leaving Her To Give Birth and Bleed Out in a Shower

In Alabama, a "chemical endangerment" law might do more harm than good.

On Friday, Ashley Caswell of Alabama filed a lawsuit claiming that the Etowah County Detention Center (ECDC) denied her medical care to the point that she gave birth without medical assistance, standing in a prison shower. She then apparently lost consciousness and lost a near-fatal amount of blood.

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In many ways, modern America is cruel to women, but pregnancy and postpartum while incarcerated can be a fresh new level of hell for many female inmates. The conditions for imprisoned mothers aren’t great to begin with, and in many cases, what rights they’re supposed to have and what they get are wildly different. That’s why groups like Pregnancy Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center seek to protect those rights by getting involved in cases like Caswell’s.

“Giving birth to my son without any medical help in the jail shower was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. My body was falling apart, and no one would listen to me. No one cared,” Caswell, who also claims she was denied routine prenatal visits, said in a statement to the press upon filing the lawsuit. “I thought I’d lose my baby, my life, and never see my other kids again.” 

According to the lawsuit, Caswell’s water broke, and she went into labor while she was a resident at the ECDC. But despite her pleading, staff denied her request to go to a hospital or, in fact, to receive any medical assistance. She was allowed to go into a shower and offered Tylenol, but was told to“stop screaming,” to “deal with the pain.” The staff on duty allegedly told her that she was “not in full labor” and that she should “sleep it off” and “wait until Monday” to give birth, which was two days away.

Caswell, who was imprisoned in the first place over “endangerment” of the fetus she was carrying, gave birth standing in a prison shower and fainted due to blood loss, according to the suit. Once she was transported to the hospital, doctors found that she had placental abruption, a condition that can be fatal for a baby if not handled by medical professionals. This is far from Etowah County’s first case of claiming to use incarceration of the mother to protect a fetus while, in fact, causing further risk of harm.

The state of Alabama is home to a unique “chemical endangerment” law, created by legislators in 2006 under the guise of protecting so-called “unborn children” from actual meth labs. Since then, it has been used as cover for incarcerating and controlling women for infractions like using cannabis at eight weeks along—literally before they knew they were pregnant—despite how clear it is that incarcerating pregnant women only increases the danger to both the mother and child.

Etowah County is relatively small, yet leads Alabama in “chemical endangerment” prosecutions. Caswell’s lawsuit is the first of its kind to push back against the systematic anti-woman abuses seen at the government level there, and could be the start of a movement.

(featured image: Stock photo/Getty Images)

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Cammy Pedroja
Author and independent journalist since 2015. Frequent contributor of news and commentary on social justice, politics, culture, and lifestyle to publications including The Mary Sue, Newsweek, Business Insider, Slate, Women, USA Today, and Huffington Post. Lover of forests, poetry, books, champagne, and trashy TV.