Dozens of women at FCI Dublin detail rape and retaliation – real reform is questioned

By: Lisa Fernandez

Published: September 23, 2022 5:48AM

Updated: September 25, 2022 7:34AM

When Marie Washington of San Diego was put into coronavirus quarantine at the Federal Correctional Institute at Dublin for six weeks, one guard in particular came by, shining a light in her cell, often asking to see her private parts. 

He asked her to “do stuff” with her cellmate so that he could watch. He told her that he could enter her room at any time to have his way to “f—” the “s—” out of her. 

“He would ask me…I’m sorry for my language…if my ass was real,” Washington told KTVU, recalling events that occured in September 2020. “He would ask me to dance for him. He would then flirt with my bunkie as well. We were like asking him, ‘What do you want to see? And he was like, ‘F— her. Do it now.’ And so we engaged in sexual activity and immediately we stopped because we were like uncomfortable.” 

Sexual abuse in prison is all too common an affair – officers have been charged with sex crimes anywhere women are held in custody across the country.

But there’s no other prison in the United States where so many officers – five, including the former warden – have been charged with having sex with incarcerated women than FCI Dublin, a low-security women’s prison about 40 miles east of San Francisco. 

Over the last eight months, KTVU interviewed, emailed and read the testimony of more than three dozen women who are currently incarcerated at or released from FCI Dublin, where actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were housed for their roles in the college admissions scandal. 

In interviews, the women described being raped, sexually assaulted, verbally threatened and retaliated against if they complained about what was going on. 

Linda Chaney of Sacramento said an officer repeatedly assaulted her in the kitchen and would “rub his dick” up against her butt. Her harassment took place from 2019 to 2021r, mostly in the kitchen area. Still, she kept quiet. 

“I was afraid to speak up, because for one, I didn’t want to be put in special housing,” Chaney told KTVU after she had been released. “I mean, like I didn’t want my room tore up, like, is just strange. Like, it just seemed like if you don’t go with the flow, they’re like they outcast you and treat you worser.”

Aerial shot of the all-women's prison in Dublin, Calif.

Shining a light on FCI Dublin 

There is no such thing as consensual sex in prison.  It is illegal for someone who is in a supervisory or disciplinary position to have any type of sexual contact or relationship with a person in detention. 

What’s unique about Dublin is not the egregiousness or the sheer scale of abuse,” said Susan Beaty, supervising attorney for Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, whose nonprofit provides services for incarcerated women at FCI Dublin. “What’s unique is that people are paying attention and sort of providing this opportunity to actually do something about it.”

As this increased focus is now being paid to this prison that holds about 700 women, some are hoping for change. 

And yet there is still ample skepticism that any real reform is really in the works. 

While the possibilities for reform could exist – by changing the culture, installing cameras, implementing stricter hiring protocols and launching independent investigations – observers say they don’t see much change really occurring. 

In fact, in some instances, all the attention has made certain aspects of prison retribution even worse. One woman emailed KTVU from inside FCI Dublin to say that all the stories about the abuse is causing more harm for her and the other women inside the prison in terms of punishments and Draconian rules. 

“I have seen since since since there’s been greater media attention paid to Dublin, a crackdown on communication, it’s been harder to get calls and visits,” Beaty said. “We’ve had legal mail intercepted again and again. That’s always been an issue at Dublin. But it’s gotten worse. And I think part of that is an attempt to prevent the public from speaking with survivors and prevent survivors from telling their stories.

Five correctional officers at FCI Dublin have been charged with the sexual abuse of a ward.

The five officers

Two officers – Ross Klinger and James Highhouse – have pleaded guilty to the crime of sexual abuse of a ward. Former cook Enrique Garcia is scheduled to plead guilty on Oct. 27. 

Former Warden Ray J. Garcia – who is charged with molesting a woman and ordering another to strip while he took pictures of her – and Officer John Bellhouse have entered not guilty pleas and are headed to trial. Charges stem from encounters documented in 2018 to 2021. 

Highhouse is the only one to receive punishment so far; a judge sentenced him to seven years in prison.  He lured women into his office and chapel, using faith and fear to coerce them. 

Their lawyers have repeatedly declined requests for comment. 

And the Bureau of Prisons has repeatedly declined requests for interviews and tours, although the agency has issued statements saying that the allegations, if true, are “reprehensible” and abhorrent.” 

Andrea Reyes, 34, of Perris, Riverside County, explained in an exclusive interview that former correctional officer Ross Klinger obtained access to her private health files while she was incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institute Dublin – an all-women’s prison 40 miles east of San Francisco.

Women detail sexual abuse 

The women all relayed stories with similar themes: Officers cozy up to them, promise them love and special treatment until the relationship goes sour, and then they are threatened and retaliated against if they report the abuse. 

For example: 

  • Andrea Reyes of Perris, Calif. was promised by Correctional Officer Ross Klinger that he’d marry her, and then when she found out he was having a relationship with another woman, she broke up with him – only to be threatened by him that she had to keep on having sex. Reyes also said Klinger dipped into her mental health files to use her past triggers to prey on her. She entered the relationship because she believed his promises of love.  “I believed him,” Reyes said. “I guess I was alone and I was vulnerable.”
  • M.R. said Klinger treated her the same way, bringing her Starbucks and then using her personal information to convince her into having sex. She got so depressed about this relationship that she began cutting herself, and was denied any mental health services, she said. Klinger threatened to kill her if she snitched that they were having sex.
  • L.I., an immigrant from Thailand, said that Highhouse, the prison chaplain, would dry hump her and justified his sexual requests by telling her that “everyone in the Bible has sex.” 
  • Yvonne Palmore of Hayward, Calif., said that she was once beaten up by officers for no apparent reason. When she awoke in grave pain, she said the warden was standing over her, taking pictures. To this day, she’s not exactly sure what happened to her and she said she suffers deep psychological stress.
  • From prison, Aimee Chavira emailed KTVU to say an officer whose nickname is “Dirty Dick” would lock her in her cell during COVID until she showed him her breasts through the door. The officer would keep coming to her cell to see if she was going to the bathroom. She would tell him to get away. And he would laugh at her and tell her he wouldn’t leave until she stood up from the toilet. “He began to get aggressive and this began to scare me bad,” she wrote.
  • Valerie Mercadel of Long Beach, Calif., stopped an attempted rape on her at FCI Dublin nearly 30 years ago. “I was petrified,” she said. She said she was treated like “a whore” by the male staff. “That’s how they treated us,” she said. “Like we were prostitutes.” Mercadel became a pastor upon her release. To this day, she said her mental health is poor, and she can’t shake the trauma of what happened to her.
  • Cherie Dillon of Idaho reported to authorities that her cellmate had an illegal sexual relationship with an officer – and then she was punished for speaking up about it. Dillon said her “good time” was taken away, she lost her commissary and she had to talk on the phone to her husband while handcuffed. “I will never tell another inmate that they should go to report anything to anyone higher up,” Dillon told KTVU. “Because all that’s going to happen is it’s going to make their life worse.

Dublin prison guard says she was forced out for reporting abuse

Tess Korth worked as a federal correctional officer at Dublin’s prison for 25 years, in which she reported the abuse of women. Then, she got a letter telling her she was re-assigned to a male facility in Oregon. She left. And now, she’s telling her side of the story.

And it’s not just incarcerated women who witnessed or experienced the abuse. 

Tess Korth, a former prison unit manager, told KTVU that she reported sexual and verbal abuses many times over her 25 years as an employee.

She said the treatment of the women was awful.

“The way they refer to them, like they were bitches,” Korth said. “And those were the nicer terms they used.” 

Mostly, Korth said her complaints fell on deaf ears. 

That is until May, when she believes her whisteblowing essentially forced her out of her job with a reassignment to another state. Instead of taking the new post, Korth retired, telling management to “shove it.” 

The abuse occurs because it can 

Dr. Terry Kupers of Berkeley, a forensic psychiatrist who testifies in prison and sexual abuse cases, said illegal and bad behavior occurs – because it can. 

In this case, the abuse came from the top, with the warden himself.

“Sexual abuse in prison doesn’t happen in a culture that doesn’t allow it,” Kupers said. “The women that are locked up in the prison have absolutely no power. The officers are in total control. And if they’re sexually abused, they have no one to complain to and nobody is going to do anything. That is the perfect storm for officers abusing women.” 

Throwing women in solitary confinement adds another layer onto the abuse.

“Women are terrified of solitary confinement more than men are,” Kupers said. “In solitary, you have no connection with other human beings. And that’s very important to women. So they dread being sent to solitary and therefore they don’t report. You can’t have women reporting to the very officers who are abusing them.” 

Could reforms be ahead? 

Associated Press reporters Michael Balsamo and Mike Sisak first started uncovering a “hotbed of corruption” throughout the 122-federal prison system after financier Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide and they wondered how and why officers weren’t watching the nation’s most high-profile inmate. 

They found systemic issues throughout the entire Bureau of Prison system. 

Balsamo noted that prisons are shrouded in secrecy and for the first time now, even if it’s only a sliver of light, the agency is now facing increased scrutiny oversight from the public and members of Congress. 

“There’s been a shake up in leadership at the prison and all the way up the Bureau of Prisons,” Balsamo said. “I think for the first time we’re starting to see, you know, the Justice Department kind of making this a top priority, especially what’s happening at Dublin.”

For example, this summer, U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Chair Jon Ossoff and Ranking Member Ron Johnson began holding hearings on the prison systems to try to uncover abuse and force reform. 

Ossoff has been extremely critical of FCI Dublin’s management, taking the former director to task during a July hearing, asking how he could promise to keep women safe in a prison that’s been nicknamed “the rape club.” 

A new Bureau of Prisons director, Colette Peters, took office on Aug. 2. 

Many hope she is a reformer. However, she declined to meet with KTVU when she visited Dublin in September, as has the new warden of the facility. 

However, on Thursday, her office issued a lengthy statement, saying that she vowed to “change the culture” at FCI Dublin. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has vowed to prosecute any officer who is found having sex with incarcerated women and sources have told KTVU that “more charges are coming.”

In August, a federal grand jury did just that; issuing an eight-count superseding indictment charging former Garcia with seven counts of sexually abusive conduct against three women who were in custody at the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin. 

“The Department of Justice takes seriously its obligation to provide safe and humane treatment to individuals in our custody,” a spokesman for the DOJ told KTVU. “Make no mistake that the Department will not tolerate this behavior by its employees, at any level, and will investigate and prosecute these cases aggressively when necessary.”

At least two dozen more officers are under investigation as part of this widening probe, KTVU has learned.

Beaty, from Centro Legal, said she is cautiously optimistic. 

“I think if there’s any cause for hope, it’s that there’s finally been light shed on the widespread issue of sexual abuse in prisons, particularly women’s prisons, and that people who were abused, women who were abused at Dublin are feeling empowered to speak out and to tell their stories,” Beaty said. 

Formerly incarcerated woman at Dublin prison says she was retaliated against for outing sexual abuse

Cherie Dillon is speaking out about her experience at the federal prison in Dublin, revealing that when she reported the sexual abuse of a peer, both women were retaliated against with extra time and solitary confinement.

Not enough security cameras 

But there are also steps not being taken, which concern those like Beaty, question whether the reform is real or just lip service. 

For example, Congress allotted money for FCI Dublin to install security cameras at its facility, which would serve as a deterrent for unwanted sex and could capture these acts on film. 

But as of March, there were at least 28 spots in the kitchen, residences and commissary that still didn’t have cameras, according to U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier’s office.  

Kupers said installing cameras is key. 

“They’re going to abuse an area of the prison that’s not on surveillance camera,” he said. “And that’s where the abuse happens.

Dublin prison officer made California woman engage in sex acts with cellmate, claim alleges

More women are coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment against correctional officers at the federal prison in Dublin.

Need for independent investigators 

Aside from wanting camera surveillance to document abuse, FCI Dublin critics also want a third-party, neutral agency to accept reports of abuse, and then investigate them independently.  

Currently, these complaints often fall on deaf ears or are looked into by Bureau of Prisons employees themselves. 

And if they are looked into, it’s often the whistleblower who suffers. 

“We have to stop the way that we have to stop the way the bureau does stuff,” Korth said. “You know, we have investigators that are the BOP. You know, how am I supposed to investigate somebody that I’ve known for 20 years?” 

Male guards in a female prison 

And then there’s the issue of having male guards watch over female inmates.

Kupers has long advocated that men should not be guarding women – especially those who are essentially living in cages. 

“This has been a problem for a long time,” Kupers said. “I don’t think male officers should be in women’s prisons except on the perimeter.”

In Michigan, for example, Kupers said that lawsuits have forced the corrections department to reach a compromise: Allowing male officers to be present in the facility, but not in the housing units or bathrooms where women dress and shower. 

“And that’s pretty much the standard around the country now,” he said.

There has been no public movement in the federal system or in California to tackle this issue. 

Dr. Terry Kupers is a forensic psychiatrist with an expertise in prison conditions.

Better hiring procedures

Korth also noted that many of the male guards who are hired, are also ex-military and who may have suffered the ill effects of war and who were never treated for their own mental issues. 

For example, Highhouse, the former prison chaplain who was sentenced to prison for forcing women to have sex with him, blamed the PTSD he suffered in the Army as the reason for his “impulse control.”

He argued unsuccessfully for leniency at his sentencing hearing, saying that he was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, suffered from depression and PTSD and was labeled clinically “disabled” as a result by Veteran’s Affairs.  

Not only that, Korth said that she has seen over the last 25 years that many officers get hired simply because of who they know. 

“The hiring practices are a joke,” she said. “I mean the bureau people are hiring the bureau people.” 

And then, Korth said, there seems to be no strict screening for new employees. 

“I mean, every other law enforcement agency makes you take a psych test or something, one of those personality tests,” Korth said.

But at FCI Dublin, Korth said there’s “nothing. I mean nothing.” 

Supervising attorney Susan Beaty at Centro Legal de La Raza in Oakland has been helping incarcerated women at FCI Dublin.

Request for release, holding leaders accountable

Beaty also has several demands for the Bureau of Prisons.

Chief among them is releasing women who have survived sexual abuse inside the prison. 

“The BOP, the DOJ need to release these survivors to their families, to their communities so that they can receive supportive services and begin to heal,” Beaty said. “I think it’s made worse by the fact that they’re forced to remain in the very cages, in the very spaces where this abuse happened.” 

In addition, the sexual assault survivors want those in leadership to be held accountable.

“Arresting a handful of bad actors is not enough,” Beaty said. “This is a systemic problem. What a lot of survivors are calling for is not just the people who abused them to be removed from their positions of power, but also the leaders who absolutely knew this abuse was happening and condoned it and allowed it to happen.” 

 Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez 

Policies to roll back abortion rights will hit incarcerated people hard


Carly Graf

Policies governing abortion and reproductive health care services in U.S. prisons and jails were restrictive and often hostile even before the Supreme Court removed Roe vs. Wade’s constitutional protections for abortions. After the June ruling, many reproductive services stand to be prohibited altogether, putting the health of incarcerated women who are pregnant at risk.

That threat is particularly urgent in states where lawmakers have made clear their intentions to roll back abortion rights.

“Previously there was at least some sliver of legal recourse there for an incarcerated person, but that no longer exists for people who live in states where abortion is or will be severely restricted or illegal,” said Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an OB-GYN, a professor, and the director of the Advocacy and Research on Reproductive Wellness of Incarcerated People program at Johns Hopkins University.

The Northern Rockies and Upper Midwest regions are home to some of the states with the highest rates of incarcerated women in the country. According to 2020 data from the Sentencing Project, Idaho has the highest incarceration rate — 110 women per 100,000 adult female residents — of any state, closely followed by South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, whose rates are more than double the national average.

Nationally, women make up an increasingly large share of prison and jail populations. From 1980 to 2020, the number of incarcerated women grew by nearly five times.

State and federal prisons do not reliably track or report the number of incarcerated people who are pregnant. The Prison Policy Project, a nonprofit research organization, estimates about 58,000 people a year are pregnant when they enter prisons or jails, or about 4% of the total number of women in state and federal prisons and 3% of those in local jails.

The quality of pregnancy care available to the incarcerated population varies greatly, not just by state but among facilities, too. That’s due to a lack of universal standards and a range of approaches by authorities governing jails and prisons, as well as the different health care provided, said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “There is far too little space for accountability, and far too much space for discretion.”

Sufrin co-authored a study published in August 2021 that surveyed pregnancy outcomes across 22 state prison systems, all federal Bureau of Prisons sites, and six county jails. It concluded that only half the state prisons surveyed allowed abortion in the first and second trimesters, and 14% prohibited it entirely.

Other facilities — including some within the federal Bureau of Prisons, which nominally requires access to abortion and appropriate prenatal and postnatal care during pregnancy — often were found to make abortion and maternal health care services practically inaccessible.

Those with written policies had barriers including distance from abortion care providers, delays in treatment until abortion was no longer legal, and requirements for the pregnant person to pay for the cost of the abortion and, sometimes, transportation to and from a clinic, according to academics and advocates. Other facilities didn’t have a formal written policy and instead left the care of an individual up to the discretion of the prison or jail.

Julia Arroyo of Young Women’s Freedom Center, a criminal justice reform advocacy organization, was pregnant while incarcerated. “Reproductive health access is very difficult on the inside,” she said, adding that women are often made to feel as if they are disruptive or difficult simply for seeking treatment.

“When I was pregnant and experiencing jail, I was never once asked what I wanted to do with my pregnancy,” she said.

Sufrin’s research found that prison facilities in states that she characterized as “hostile” to abortion are more likely to make abortion all but impossible to access. Several states — including South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho — have already banned most abortions or are in the process of seeking to implement severe restrictions on abortion.

South Dakota’s trigger law banning most abortions took effect immediately after the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision.

An abortion ban that was set to take effect in Wyoming on July 27 but was temporarily blocked by a judge makes the procedure illegal except in cases of incest or rape or to protect the life of the mother.

Wyoming’s Department of Corrections declined to comment, and Idaho officials did not respond to questions about how their state’s new abortion ban — which is facing challenges in court — would affect incarcerated people. However, experts suspect statewide prohibitions likely would worsen access in prisons and county jails.

In Montana, abortions are protected by a 1999 state Supreme Court ruling that the Montana Constitution’s right-to-privacy provision extends to a person’s medical decisions. Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, is asking the state’s high court to reverse that ruling, and Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has said he would consider calling a special session to consider anti-abortion legislation if lawmakers had a plan that would pass court review. The next regular session is in January, and Republican lawmakers say they intend to explore new ways to roll back that protection.

Montana Department of Corrections spokesperson Alexandria Klapmeier said in an email that all facilities “meet the standards of care for inmates as required by law, including for prenatal care, which is at or above the level of care they would receive were they not incarcerated.”

However, Klapmeier declined to comment further on how the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization would influence the agency’s abortion policies or offer specifics on treatment and protocols. As recently as 2019, ACLU Montana released a report finding that the state fails to ensure that incarcerated pregnant people have access to routine prenatal care.

Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities must provide access to abortion, as well as other reproductive health care services. However, they are not required to pay for the procedures or the transportation to a clinic, which means many women are priced out of the treatment.

The federal prison system and most states require some form of copayment by inmates for medical services, though California and Illinois reversed their policies, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Even states without copayment policies can require inmates to pay for medical costs. Montana, for example, says an inmate is responsible for costs associated with preexisting conditions and self-inflicted or certain other injuries.

There are no federal prisons in Montana, Wyoming, or Idaho. The nearest in the region include six in Colorado, two in Oregon, and one in Washington, all states that have laws protecting abortion access. The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on how Dobbs would affect policies.

Sufrin said she feared a “chilling effect” from the Dobbs decision on essential pregnancy care for prisoners. That includes treatment of miscarriages, which many experts note often mirrors abortion protocols. Doctors and other health care providers have raised concerns that without that treatment, women’s lives could be at risk since medical professionals are nervous about how their actions might violate state abortion prohibitions.

Forcing someone to carry a pregnancy to term while incarcerated could result in great trauma to the mother, according to multiple experts, as well as compromise the car8/29/22fe of the child. Forcing anyone to carry a pregnancy to full term can make it harder for a person to escape poverty and derail life plans, and a forced pregnancy behind bars has even greater punitive consequences, Kolbi-Molinas said.

Despite federal law prohibiting the use of shackles for pregnant women giving birth in federal prisons, some states — among them Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho — do not have laws that make that practice illegal, and prison officials have been accused of using restraints on women in the delivery room in the past.

Incarcerated women are often forced to give birth without a companion, and once the baby is born, the child is typically taken away immediately and housed with a family member or, when one isn’t available, put into the foster care system.

“It violates all the principles of reproductive justice,” Sufrin said. “They do not have the right to choose to have children and they do not have the right to parent.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

The post Policies to roll back abortion rights will hit incarcerated people hard appeared first on Daily Montanan.

Formerly Incarcerated Women in Tennessee Win Reforms Ending Shackled Births


June 26, 2022


Within 30 days, abortion will become a Class C felony in the state of Tennessee. This is happening because Tennessee is one of the 13 states with a trigger law crafted to ban abortion as soon as the protections offered under Roe v. Wade were overturned. Following the United States Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to strike down Roe v. Wade, the ban is now in the process of being implemented in Tennessee.

But the ban on abortion is only the latest form of state violence that Tennessee, which already has a high maternal mortality rate and the country’s lowest rate of food assistance for families, has been deploying against its pregnant residents.

In 2014, Tennessee became the first state to directly allow women to be prosecuted for drug use during pregnancy. That bill included what’s known as a sunset clause, allowing the law to expire in 2016, but lawmakers have subsequently reintroduced similar bills targeting pregnant people and reproductive rights with permanent implementation. In fact, in early May of this year, Gov. Bill Lee signed a law criminalizing the distribution of abortion medications by mail.

Even while legal in the state, abortion access for incarcerated people has already been massively obstructed. In 2015, Maury County Sheriff Bucky Rowland refused to allow a woman to have an abortion. The woman’s attorney attempted to have a court lower her bond, which would allow her release from jail, but by the time it was lowered, she was too far along in her pregnancy to access the procedure. The woman gave birth three months after her release. In 2016, she filed federal suit against the sheriff for denying her abortion access. A federal court later dismissed her lawsuit.

Until recently, pregnant Tennesseans behind bars suffered an additional indignity — the threat of being handcuffed and chained at the belly and ankles during pregnancy, including while in labor or shortly after having their baby. It’s a practice known as shackling and, as late as 2020, 18 states, including Tennessee, had no statewide restriction on shackling pregnant people.

That last indignity was struck down in mid-May when Tennessee passed a law prohibiting jails and prisons from shackling and restraining pregnant people. Now, only 11 states lack legal protections against the practice.

In states like Tennessee, this legislative win came after years of organizing by reproductive justice advocates, including formerly incarcerated women who had experienced the humiliation and trauma of being restrained throughout pregnancy and sometimes even while in labor.

Laboring in Cuffs

In 2008, Juana Villegas was nine months pregnant when police asked for her driver’s license during a routine traffic stop. When Villegas, who was undocumented, could not produce one, police took her to Nashville’s Davidson County Jail and detained her under the 287(g) program that allowed police to detain people on federal immigration violations.

Three days later, while in jail, Villegas went into labor. Officers cuffed her hands and ankles before allowing an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Two male officers accompanied her. At the hospital, at the request of hospital staff, the officers removed the cuffs while she changed into a hospital gown but re-cuffed her after she had changed.

A third officer, who relieved the two male officers, removed the handcuffs, but kept one of Villegas’s legs cuffed to the bed. A fourth officer removed all restraints two hours before Villegas gave birth; six hours after she gave birth, officers shackled her, by her ankle, to the bed. The baby was sent home with family. Hospital staff gave her a breast pump to take back to the jail, but jail staff refused to let her keep it. Unable to pump, she developed a breast infection. Days later, she was released from the jail and able to rejoin him and her other children.

In 2009, Villegas filed a lawsuit charging the jail with deliberate indifference. In 2013, Nashville officials agreed to a $490,000 settlement. The judge also urged immigration officials to give Villegas a U-visa, usually reserved for immigrants who are crime victims, because her civil rights had been violated. The visa allowed Villegas to remain in the U.S. with her four children, including the son she gave birth to while jailed.

By the time Villegas filed suit, the Davidson County jail had changed its policy on restraining pregnant people in custody. This meant that, when Jawharrah Bahar was at the jail in 2010, she was taken to her doctor’s appointments in handcuffs but not in leg irons. But Bahar does recall that other times jail officers did shackle her feet together, making it nearly impossible to walk without stumbling.

Even when her legs remained unrestrained, she feared falling and being unable to catch herself while handcuffed. The jail-issued shoes never fit properly. “They flopped off my feet,” she told Truthout. “I always had in the back of my mind: I hope I don’t fall.”

When she went into labor, jail officials handcuffed her wrist to a bar in the ambulance. “That was ridiculous,” she said. “Where the hell am I going to go? I’m in labor.” Once she arrived at the hospital, however, she was allowed to give birth to her son unrestrained.

No law, however, prevented other jail and prison officials from shackling pregnant people. In Clay County, two hours northeast of Nashville, jail officials chained women, including pregnant ones, to chairs as late as 2019.

That’s what happened to Shauna Scott, who was 11 weeks pregnant when she was arrested for a probation violation. The woman next to her, Mackenzie Melton, was also pregnant and, while chained to a chair for six days, developed a blood clot. (Melton was transferred to a treatment facility after those six days.)

Advocating for Pregnant People Behind Bars

Dawn Harrington has never been pregnant behind bars. But she spent nearly a year on Rikers Island, New York City’s island-jail complex, in 2008. There, she was surrounded by mothers struggling to parent through 15-minute calls and one-hour visits, to navigate family court proceedings, and to maintain their legal parental rights.

Upon her release, she returned to her home state of Tennessee and co-founded Free Hearts, a local nonprofit by and for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. They provided support and services to women and children impacted by incarceration. They also fought to restore in-person visiting to local jails and helped pass the Primary Caretakers Act, which allows community-based alternatives to incarceration for people who have primary caretaking responsibilities.

Bahar joined Free Hearts in 2016. She had never engaged in advocacy before, but she recalls that, while in jail and then prison, she filed multiple grievances about abusive conditions. “I used to always be fussing about the injustices that [jail and prison officials] were doing,” she said. “I grieved everybody. I wanted to stand up for what’s right.”

With Free Hearts, she started by canvassing Rutherford County (middle Tennessee), where Civil Rights Corp had won a settlement from private probation company Providence Community Corporation (PCC) for extorting fees from people placed under its supervision. They alerted people who had been on probation under PCC that they were eligible for the settlement. Then, she shared her story about giving birth behind bars and being separated from her newborn for over three years. Bahar’s public sharing of her story helped pass the Primary Caretakers Act.

“I never thought I’d be doing no activism or helping pass laws,” Bahar recalled. But now, she is Free Hearts’s outreach director.

In 2017, Harrington attended a convening focused on efforts to end shackling during pregnancy hosted by Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, an organization which had passed anti-shackling legislation in California. There, she met formerly incarcerated organizers who had succeeded in passing laws prohibiting shackling during pregnancy in their states. She also met organizers from Oklahoma and Georgia who were still trying to pass similar protections. (They did so in 2018 and 2019 respectively.) Harrington returned home ready to fight for similar protections in Tennessee.

Free Hearts partnered with Healthy and Free Tennessee, a statewide reproductive justice network, to push a package of bills to not only prohibit shackling but also provide minimal standards of prenatal care behind bars and provide breast pumps for new mothers. The package also included a proposal to ban solitary confinement for all pregnant people, since Tennessee has no restrictions against subjecting pregnant people to this practice, which has been proven to negatively affect people’s physical and mental health. For pregnant people, isolation and the inability to walk or exercise also carry negative effects on the development of the fetus.

In 2019, these bills were introduced in both Tennessee state houses. Bahar and other Free Hearts members who had been pregnant behind bars shared their experiences with media and lawmakers. Meanwhile, Healthy and Free Tennessee rallied medical professionals, often alerting them to the practice.

“We work with nursing associations, the Tennessee Medical Association, [groups that have] traditionally not gotten involved in these types of issues,” Nina Gurak, policy director at Healthy and Free Tennessee, told Truthout.

Healthy and Free Tennessee has long worked with anti-violence advocates and organizations across the state. The bill allowed them not only to engage with them about shackling, but also, Gurak recalled, “to pivot from the carceral nature of anti-violence work and build connections. We can all agree shackling is bad.” From there, she said, they expanded their conversations to talk about the ways in which criminalization impacts abuse survivors, including their risk of being arrested when police are called for domestic violence or for physically defending themselves against abusive partners, and why both organizations centered abolition rather than increased policing and imprisonment to stop gender-based violence.

Despite their combined efforts, however, the bills were defeated in legislative subcommittee. In 2020, lawmakers reintroduced them — this time each issue had in its own bill. This time, too, organizers were broadening their strategies.

By then, Free Hearts was launching its Tennessee Regional Organizing Fellowship to develop leadership and organizing skills of formerly incarcerated women throughout the state, particularly in areas where Free Hearts previously had no presence. “We’re from Nashville, we’re mostly Black women,” Harrington told Truthout. “We can’t be the ones to go into some of these communities and organize. The majority of our state is rural, so it has to be people in those communities.” The fellowship enabled them to reach formerly incarcerated women in rural areas, bringing them into the organizing.

Healthy and Free Tennessee reached out to groups tackling intersecting issues. For the prenatal care bill, which includes HIV screening among its minimal standards, the coalition joined with the Tennessee AIDS Action Network to lobby at the capitol. Then the pandemic hit the U.S., shuttering legislative offices and moving advocacy and policy-making online.

As a statewide coalition, Healthy and Free Tennessee was already used to convening online with its partner organizations and advocates in various parts of the state. Members quickly pivoted online, participating in Zoom video conferences not only about these bills but also reaching out to advocates focused on other reproductive and health justice issues, such as abortion access and expanding Medicaid.

Free Hearts, however, was not accustomed to online organizing. Some members struggled with learning the technology while others lived in rural areas without internet or solid phone reception, preventing them from even phoning into Zoom meetings.

Both organizations rejoiced when lawmakers passed the prenatal care bill in June. Although the other bills failed to pass, they vowed to keep pushing until those too became law.

In 2021, the anti-shackling and anti-solitary bills were introduced again alongside a the new Senate Bill 1423, to prohibit staff from conducting body cavity searches on pregnant or postpartum people without authorization from higher-ranking jail or prison officials. All three failed to pass.

“We’re Just Going to Keep Fighting”

In 2022, lawmakers once again introduced bills to prohibit shackling and body cavity searches of pregnant people in jails and prisons.

Free Hearts embarked on a text message campaign, first asking recipients to sign a petition supporting the anti-shackling bill, then asking them to contact their legislators about supporting the bill. The third text asked if they would come to Nashville for the annual lobby day.

“From those, we identified thousands of people that supported this legislation,” Harrington recalled. “Being able to identify over 3,000 people in the heart of rural Tennessee, in very conservative counties, through a text campaign is invaluable. That’s also something we can translate to in-person [organizing].”

This year, they were able to convene at the state capitol again for in-person lobbying. Among them were formerly incarcerated women who had recently been pregnant and in jail. Harrington recalled one woman, who had recently been part of Free Hearts’s jail program and was nearly ready to give birth, sharing her experiences with legislators. She had never been involved in organizing before and the experience, she said, felt powerful. “It’s so important to get a taste of our own power so that we can come together and actually change things,” Harrington said.

The bill was opposed by the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association. At a corrections subcommittee hearing, Jeff Bledsoe, the association’s executive director, testified against the bill. He asserted that jailers sometimes find it necessary to shackle a pregnant woman, giving the example of a 14-bed jail that lacked female cells. When a pregnant woman entered, she was shackled to a chair in the hallway. The woman, he added, had been jailed repeatedly for violating probation by using drugs. “They’re not only putting themselves at harm, but [also] their unborn child,” he told lawmakers.

His logic, noted Gurak, is part of the larger surveillance and policing of pregnant people, ranging from physically restraining pregnant people to jailing them for the supposed safety of the fetus to criminalizing abortion.

Despite the sheriffs’ opposition, lawmakers voted to pass the anti-shackling bill from the committee onto the floor for a vote. This time, it passed and, on May 25, the governor signed it into law. It goes into effect on July 1.

“It’s a reminder that everything that we do has taken multiple years. Every legislation we’ve been able to pass, it’s never been a one-year thing,” Harrington said.

What’s more, she added, it showed formerly incarcerated women, many of whom had never been involved in organizing or activism before, that, “If we could do this, we could do anything. Organizing to build power works and we’re just going to keep fighting until all the things that hold us back are taken down.”

Harrington’s words are worth reflecting on as people across the U.S. now contend with the reality of limited and scattered abortion access. The far right’s slashing of reproductive rights took place over years, and reversing their victories won’t be a “one-year thing.” But mass organizing to build power, particularly by those who are most impacted and have long been marginalized, has proven, again and again, that it is possible to challenge and change reproductive (and other) injustices.

As Gurak stated in a press release minutes after the Supreme Court decision, “While we are heartbroken, we have also been preparing for this possibility, and will continue to center abolition in the fight for reproductive justice for all Tennesseans. We will always oppose laws that punish people for pregnancy outcomes and will always work to provide accurate resources and information, fight for increased resources for pregnant people and families, and advocate for the rights of pregnant people in Tennessee.”

Victims of Forced Sterilization in California Are Fighting for Reparations


June 8, 2022

By Ray Levy-Uyeda

Op-Ed Reproductive Rights

In the mid-2000s, Moonlight Pulido experienced a bout of hot flashes, emotional ups-and-downs, and other symptoms of menopause that confused her — after all, she was in her 30s and far too young to be experiencing these kinds of hormonal changes. Days before the symptoms set in, she had undergone what she believed to be a procedure to remove cancerous growths on her internal reproductive organs at the hospital at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, where she was incarcerated. Instead, she had been forcibly sterilized.

Pulido, who now lives in a reentry program home located in Los Angeles, told Truthout that she didn’t even find out what had happened to her until she returned to the hospital for a postoperative dressing change. She asked the nurse what kind of procedure had been done on her. “She was like, ‘Oh, you had a full hysterectomy’,” Pulido said.

“[He] was a doctor and he worked in a prison, so I didn’t feel like I needed to worry about anything,” Pulido said. “So, when it came for surgery time, I didn’t read the paperwork. I just signed it. I didn’t know I was signing up for a full hysterectomy.”

Though the medical abuse that Pulido endured took place over a decade ago, it’s only recently that she’s been offered an apology for what was done to her and allowed reparative action on behalf of the state agencies that facilitated forced sterilizations. At the end of 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-California) signed legislation into law that established a $4.5 million compensation fund for victims of forced sterilizations. Through December 2023, the California Victim Compensation Board will review applications for reparations filed by people who were forcibly sterilized during two periods of time in which state employees were empowered to decide whether thousands of people were worthy of bodily autonomy and the right to reproduce. The first period was between 1909 and 1979, when eugenics sterilization was legal in the state, and the second was during the time period after, including when Pulido was sterilized.

“It is a victory to even get this type of an acknowledgement, but then the implementation falls way short of what we are hoping for,” said Diana Block, a founding member of the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners. “In this case already we can see that there are many, many obstacles to people actually getting the compensation.”

The number of people who ultimately end up applying for funds is dependent on three factors — if grassroots organizations can let people know that there are funds to be had, if people who are currently or formerly incarcerated can gain access to their own medical records, and if the California Victim Compensation Board can respond with haste to let applicants know about the standing of their application.

Now, Pulido has the opportunity to collect up to $25,000 from the state as a means of a formal recognition of what she survived, but she’s still waiting to hear whether her application has been approved. Advocates for compensation fear that the state may act as negligently with the applications as it did toward systemic medical abuse of incarcerated women and others held in state facilities.

A 2013 Center for Investigative Reporting article first broke the story of forced sterilizations taking place in California’s state-run facilities and prisons, finding that at least 148 incarcerated women were subjected to sterilizations. Shortly after the article’s publication, state legislators called for an audit of sterilizations performed in prison health care facilities, which later identified 144 incarcerated women who had undergone bilateral tubal ligation — a procedure that serves no medical purpose but to prevent pregnancy.

Of those 144 patients, at least 39 were not offered informed consent or underwent procedures that were completed without the appropriate physician signatures on consent forms. The audit found that all but one of the 144 tubal ligation procedures lacked the necessary signatures, and cited the failure as “systemic.”

“I didn’t read the paperwork. I just signed it. I didn’t know I was signing up for a full hysterectomy.”

Of those 144 patients, at least 39 were not offered informed consent or underwent procedures that were completed without the appropriate physician signatures on consent forms. The audit found that all but one of the 144 tubal ligation procedures lacked the necessary signatures, and cited the failure as “systemic.”

Even still, the government audit acknowledges that this is merely an estimate of how many people treated at prison hospitals were forcibly sterilized, seeing as, “the true number of cases in which Corrections or the Receiver’s Office did not ensure that consent was lawfully obtained prior to sterilization may be higher.” In fact, the audit says that data from the California Correctional Health Care Services Receiver’s Office shows that nearly 800 incarcerated women underwent procedures that “could have resulted in sterilization” in the years between 2005 and 2013.

The total number of potential survivors differs depending on who’s asked. The creators of Belly of the Beast, the 2020 documentary that helped propel the compensation legislation to the governor’s desk and shed light on the fact that sterilizations occurred in California as recently as 2011, identified as many as 1,400 survivors eligible for compensation. The California Victim Compensation Board says that they anticipate 600 people will come forward. According to the board, as of June 1, 62 applications have been filed and four have been approved.

“They [the state] have no record in one place of everyone who has been sterilized,” Block said. So, it’s a matter of people basically self-identifying and applying.” And now, “the clock is ticking.”

Chryl LaMar, a coordinator with the California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners (CCWP) who is formerly incarcerated, is helping survivors apply for compensation. She first reaches out through email to let survivors know about the funds and then walks them through the application, which CCWP worked with the California Victim Compensation Board to formulate.

But LaMar says that survivors are “running up against a wall.” Not only are survivors having a difficult time accessing their own medical records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), but in many cases hospitals do not keep records for more than 10 years. It’s the kind of hurdle that can make gaining a small kind of justice for a traumatic event even more cumbersome. “CDCR should be giving ladies their documents inside of the system,” LaMar said.

The California Victim Compensation Board form asks that applicants provide proof of their sterilization or “suspected” sterilization (in the case that there is no official documentation), and in these cases LaMar is having to think creatively about how to demonstrate the medical abuse. She explains that in the case where someone can’t provide the medical records, they can provide a different record indicating that they were discharged from the prison to the hospital overnight, indicating that they underwent a procedure.

Gaining justice for survivors and reckoning with the state’s history of abuse is “not only a reproductive health issue [it’s a] racial justice issue,” said Lorena García Zermeño, the policy and communications coordinator at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, one of the organizations that fought for the passage of the compensation bill. “It’s a matter of ensuring that our communities are not criminalized and upholding folks’ bodily autonomy.”

California conducted more than double the number of sterilizations of states like North Carolina and Virginia, which sterilized a recorded 7,600 and 8,000 people respectively.

Eugenics practices and forced sterilizations have long been weapons wielded against Indigenous, Black and Latinx people, as well as immigrants, low-wealth and disabled people. In 1909, California enacted a eugenics law that allowed doctors working in state-run hospitals, homes and institutions to sterilize anyone classified as mentally ill, feebleminded, epileptic or syphilitic, using what eugenicists believe to be a crude immunization against a so-called predisposition for criminality. Latinx, Black and Indigenous women were disproportionately sterilized due to what scholars have called “deep-seated preoccupations about gender norms and female sexuality.”

During the 20th century about 60,000 recorded sterilizations took place across the U.S., with a third of those occurring in California. Even while the majority of sterilizations in the state took place between 1920 and 1950, the pathologization of mental ability, neuro non-normativity, race and queerness lasted well until 1979, when the state finally outlawed sterilizations for eugenics purposes. After the audit in 2014, the state banned sterilizations in prisons as a means of birth control. In 2016, there were an estimated 831 survivors of eugenics sterilizations with an average age of 87.9. As of 2021, there are only 383 living survivors of eugenics sterilization who would be eligible for reparations, according to Zermeño.

The legacy of eugenics is alive in the systemic failure to uphold the reproductive freedom of incarcerated people, most notably in the belief that low-income people, people of color — specifically Latinx, Indigenous and Black people — and disabled people drain state economies. Pulido says she experienced this firsthand from the doctor who performed an illegal hysterectomy on her: “I’m so sick of you guys coming in and out of the prison,” Pulido said the doctor told her when she returned for a dressing change. “You get pregnant and you end up back in jail and I have to pay for the care of your children through government aid, because you can’t stay home and be decent.” Pulido is Native American.

California conducted more than double the number of sterilizations of states like North Carolina and Virginia, which sterilized a recorded 7,600 and 8,000 people respectively. But California lags far behind those states in reckoning with its history, and it hasn’t sought to offer reparation payments until this year. Zermeño said that when crafting the compensation legislation, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and other organizations modeled the language and expectations after similar programs in North Carolina and Virginia, estimating that 25 percent of the eligible survivors will apply for compensation. Zermeño wants the state to remember that issues of injustice are interconnected, and hopes she can draw people’s attention to the fact that racism and prejudice are baked into all parts of the system, not just those that facilitate the sterilization of people without their consent.

For Pulido, who’s rebuilding her life and community after so many years since her medical trauma, her survival is a testament to her strength. “Even though I went through what I went through, and I was told what I was told by that doctor, I still fought for my freedom,” she said.

She was jailed for losing a pregnancy. Her nightmare could become more common. 

June 5, 2022

By Sam Levin 

On 4 November 2019, TV stations across California blasted Chelsea Becker’s photo on their news editions. The “search was on” for a “troubled” 25-year-old woman wanted for the “murder of her unborn baby”, news anchors said, warning viewers not to approach if they spotted her but to call the authorities.

The next day, Becker was asleep at the home she was staying in when officers with the Hanford police department arrived.

“The officer had a large automatic weapon pointed at me and a K-9 [dog],” Becker, now 28, recalled in a recent interview. “I walked out and surrendered.”

Two months before, Becker had had a stillbirth at a California hospital, losing a baby boy at eight months pregnant. The King’s county prosecutor in the central valley charged her with “murder of a human fetus”, alleging she had acted with “malice” because she had been struggling with drug addiction and the hospital reported meth in her system.

Becker’s attorneys argued there was no evidence that substance use caused the stillbirth and California law did not allow for this type of prosecution in the first place. Still, she spent 16 months in jail awaiting trial before a judge dismissed the charges.

Becker’s nightmare offers a preview of the kinds of criminal cases that could become commonplace in the US if the supreme court, as expected after the leak of a draft opinion last month, officially overturns Roe v Wade. In the states that outlaw abortion, advocates warn, pregnancy losses more broadly will be treated as potential crimes, including in cases of wanted pregnancies. Even with Roe in effect, women have repeatedly faced arrest and charges for their pregnancy outcomes.

“These prosecutions will escalate at an extremely rapid clip if Roe is reversed,” said Emma Roth, staff attorney with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), a non-profit group that supported Becker in her legal battle. “A lot of people don’t realize that pregnant people are already facing criminalization all across the country, including in blue states like California. All it takes is a rogue district attorney.”

‘Why did the hospital call police?’

Becker grew up in an agricultural region 200 miles north-west of Los Angeles. The area has an unemployment rate twice the California average, and more than 15% of its residents live in poverty. Authorities say it has long been a hub for meth distribution, and access to drug rehabilitation, reproductive healthcare and other services is limited.

Becker had struggled with addiction and at the time of her stillbirth was also battling homelessness, occasionally forced to sleep on a motel stairwell.

On 9 September 2019, she had been preparing for the birth of her fourth child, a baby boy whom she had already named, when her family had to call an ambulance to rush her to the hospital.

She was uncontrollably bleeding when she arrived at the Adventist Health Hanford hospital, a faith-based organization, and roughly two hours later lost the child.

Staff treated her with suspicion, Becker said. Her mother learned before her that the baby had not survived, Becker recalled in an email interview. “I was in shock, physically from the blood loss and mentally from the news,” she said.

She briefly held her baby, she said, and wondered whether he could have survived if the hospital had done an emergency C-section. She also wondered why she received blood transfusions only hours after she had arrived in distress.

The next morning, she said, she discovered that the hospital had left her baby on a table at the other end of the room for hours on end. She also learned that hospital staff had called the police.

“Why the hospital staff called the police to take my baby away is still so troubling. That image of me lying in the hospital bed with my deceased son left on a table, seemingly abandoned, is an image I will never forget,” she said.

‘I suffered alone’

Police records show that hospital staff reported the stillbirth as “suspicious” to police and found Becker tested positive for meth, though her attorneys say she never consented to a drug test.

Later, Becker agreed to meet police at her mother’s house where an officer interrogated her about her drug use. The police recommended she be prosecuted for murder, and weeks later, took her to jail.

Becker was prosecuted by the Kings county district attorney, Keith Fagundes, the only prosecutor in California who has filed charges for a stillbirth in the last three decades. The year before, Fagundes had also filed a murder case against Adora Perez, after she delivered a stillborn baby at the same hospital in Hanford and police also alleged that meth use had caused the loss.

Becker awaited trial in jail while struggling to process her grief. Behind bars, she was unable to receive proper counseling, she said in a recent statement to lawmakers: “I was afraid anything I might have said to any of them would be used against me in court, so I suffered alone.”

While in jail, she lost custody of her son, who was adopted. Her two other children were already in the custody of a relative.

Becker was prosecuted under Section 187 of the California penal code, which defines murder as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought”. Lawmakers added “fetus” to the statute in 1970 in response to the case of a man who had attacked a pregnant woman, causing a stillbirth. The law does not apply to an act “consented to by the mother of the fetus”, and the primary author of the legislation, a Republican lawmaker, later testified that the mention of fetus was solely intended for prosecuting “a third party’s willful assault on a pregnant woman”.

But Fagundes, and the police officials who investigated Perez and Becker, have used it to argue that women, in some cases, should be jailed.

Becker’s lawyers argued that she could not legally be prosecuted under Section 187. They also noted that at the time of the stillbirth, Becker had three separate reproductive infections, all of which can cause stillbirth. The pathologist who concluded Becker’s stillbirth was due to “acute methamphetamine toxicity” admitted in court that he was not aware of the infections when he conducted the autopsy and had not reviewed her medical records before his determination.

A judge dismissed the case in May 2021.

Adora Perez, the other woman prosecuted by Fagundes, spent four years behind bars before her case was dismissed earlier this year.

“The DA’s extraordinarily broad and very dangerous interpretation of the statute means that if a woman does any kind of activity that could be considered reckless while she’s pregnant, and she loses her fetus, she’s up for murder,” said Mary McNamara, Perez’s lawyer. “If she works at a dangerous factory while she’s pregnant and loses her child, that’s murder. If she is ill and needs cancer treatment that could harm her fetus, that’s murder.”

‘Women are afraid to seek help’

Although Becker’s case was unusual in California, it is not unique in the US.

The 1973 Roe decision established the constitutional right to abortion. But NAPW has tracked more than 1,700 cases between 1973 and 2020 in which pregnant people have been criminalized often based on the notion of “fetal personhood” – that a fetus is, in effect, a person with rights. That estimate, probably an undercount, includes a wide range of cases in which pregnant people faced arrest, prosecution or other criminal or civil consequences based on some action or behavior that law enforcement claimed caused harm to the fetus.

Pregnant women have been criminalized for falling down stairs; giving birth at home; exposing a fetus to dangerous “fumes”; having HIV; not resting enough during the pregnancy; not getting to a hospital fast enough while in labor; being the victim of a shooting; and self-inducing an abortion.

“Once prosecutors decide they want to punish somebody for ending a pregnancy, they will figure out a way to do so,” said Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel and legal director of If/When/How, a reproductive justice group.

Substance use is one of the most common allegations, with mothers facing charges even when there’s no evidence of harm to the fetus and in some instances, even after they have given birth to a healthy baby.

Two physician experts testified that Becker’s arrest was rooted in “medical misinformation” and that the claims that meth use causes stillbirths were unfounded. At least 20% of all pregnancies in the US end in miscarriages and stillbirths, often with unknown causes, the doctors wrote, and if the courts treat stillbirths as potential crimes, it will require a dramatic expansion of the role of law enforcement in pregnancy.

A coalition of major medical associations, public health and reproductive rights groups also filed a brief supporting Becker, noting the research consensus that the threat of prosecutions does not protect pregnancies, but rather endangers them by leading people to avoid care. “It is in no way pro-life or in the interest of the health of a fetus that we criminalize the negative outcomes of pregnancy,” added Jacqueline Goodman, one of Becker’s attorneys.

Becker said women who are addicted and pregnant are afraid to seek help, whether in the form of drug treatment or prenatal care. “Women wonder, ‘How can I fix this on my own without anyone else finding out, and in time before the baby comes?’” Becker said. “And many times, as we have seen, it’s much too difficult a battle to fight alone, and many women are unable to kick their addiction by themselves without professional help.”

The fight to protect others

When Becker’s case was dismissed last year, she was in the middle of completing a drug treatment program. “There was a small part of me that said, ‘I don’t have to be here any more. I can leave and go home, and nothing will happen to me.’ But I knew better than to abandon that commitment,” Becker recalled.

After completing treatment, she enrolled in college and is now working toward a community health worker certificate and public health degree.

She also recently advocated for state legislation meant to explicitly block these kinds of prosecutions.

“I hope that in the future, no woman will ever be prosecuted for losing a pregnancy,” she told legislators. “I was punished for something that could have happened to anybody.”

Brian Johnson, an Adventist Health spokesperson, declined to comment on Becker’s case, but said it was hospital policy to notify the coroner’s office in a stillbirth after 20 weeks, and that it follows reporting requirements of child protective services.

The Hanford police department did not respond to inquiries.

Fagundes, the prosecutor, dismissed the medical associations’ arguments as a “political position”.. He said he could not cite research to support his claims that prosecution was the right approach to addiction, but noted that the women did not use drugs behind bars.

Asked why he was the only DA in the state prosecuting women for stillbirths, he said, “Others are fearful of the liberal media machine, the attorney general and the governor and our legislature.”

He added he could in the future refile cases against Becker and Perez, but said he had no immediate plans to do so. “It really depends on how these two women proceed in life. If they’re successful and sober and don’t harm more children, then they probably deserve some credit for that,” he said.