A pregnant woman in Montgomery, AL was detained overnight in a prison known to have coronavirus cases after being arrested for failing to show up for court hearings on traffic-related violations in addition to other related charges.
Diamond Davis was released late the next day after a judge, via teleconference, assigned her a new court date to discuss a plan to repay the fines she owes. Reform advocates told the New York Times that Davis’ case is part of a vicious cycle to target the disadvantaged, but she is also among a number of pregnant women who have been put at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 because of non-violent charges by a prison system being accused of not doing enough to protect those it incarcerates.
Davis was pulled over for driving a car with expired, temporary license plates. When the officers stopped her, they realized she was driving without a license or car insurance and that she owed fines to the court. She was taken to Montgomery City Jail where Davis claims, she was denied her request for a mask and gloves and there was no hot water for hand washing. According to Davis, one of the two women she shared a cell with was coughing.
After Davis was released, police reported five positive coronavirus cases at Montgomery City Jail among federal incarcerated people, who are reportedly held separately from those incarcerated by the city such as Davis. Five cases were also reported among nurses and correctional officers. Since then, the number of positive cases has risen to 21, according to confirmation from Montgomery’s director of public information, Michael Briddell.
Davis’ story is one of a few chronicling the experiences of pregnant women in incarceration during the coronavirus. In April, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision would release some pregnant and postpartum women who are within six months of completing their sentences, provided they have not committed a violent felony or sexual offense.
This announcement was criticized for its criteria being too stringent to have any meaningful impact since most pregnant women are imprisoned when they are already pregnant and average prison sentences are much longer than six months. Lawyers at The Legal Aid Society wrote a letter to DOCCS’ acting commissioner Anthony Annucci in late April demanding that 10 pregnant women be released from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Six of the 10 women are still there, reports NY Daily News.
In other states, a pregnant women — particularly women of color — were subjected to similar circumstances. On April 28, Andra Circle Bear died in prison in Fort Worth, TX after giving birth on a ventilator one month earlier. Bear, a Native American woman, had received a two-year sentence on a minor, non-violent drug charge in January.
The New York Times reports that there is a direct link between Bear’s incarceration and her preventable death. The prosecutor could have declined to pursue the offense, the nature of which is rarely prosecuted. The judge could have suspended her sentence and allowed her to serve time after giving birth or after the coronavirus subsided. The Bureau of Prisons could have granted her permission to be confined at home. Bear could have also been granted compassionate release.
“Jails are disproportionately putting Black women — and the entire country — at even further risk of coronavirus and complicated outcomes by keeping them in cages where they are often in close proximity with one another and have to engage in unavoidable interactions with jail staff who may be infected with the virus,” writer and activist Philip V. McHarris wrote in an op-ed.
According to data shared by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, black women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women. Additionally, if people of color were incarcerated at the same rates as white people, jail populations would decline by almost 40%.
Roughly 9,500 expecting mothers are held in prisons and jails across the country. Outside of an historic public health crisis, that number would be shocking; however, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the figure becomes unconscionable.
With overcrowding and unsanitary conditions posing an almost insurmountable barrier to social distancing and preventative hygienic measures, America’s jails and prisons become unfettered breeding grounds for COVID-19. Not to mention the severe lack of testing. Of the roughly 153,000 people being held in federal custody, the Bureau of Prisons reports testing only 2,700, reports the New York Times. Of the small number of people tested, approximately 70 percent have tested positive.