Tara Rhodes was well into her second trimester of a high-risk pregnancy when she was arrested for a nonviolent drug offense and detained at the Mississippi County Detention Center in Charleston, Missouri.
Rhodes had been pregnant before—this baby would be the fifth child she had placed for adoption. So when, three days into her incarceration, she started feeling abdominal pain and leaking amniotic fluid, she knew these were the telltale signs of preterm labor.
What she didn’t know was this was just the beginning of what would be a five-day ordeal in which county jail employees would ignore, neglect, and restrain her. It would end with the death of her baby, according to a lawsuit filed by the Missouri ACLU on behalf of Rhodes.
When Rhodes—a woman with a history of abusing drugs and committing crimes to get them, according to her lawyer—told the staff her water had broken and she needed medical attention, her jailers said she would have to wait to see a doctor.
For the next five days, as she labored alone, Rhodes begged the jail employees for help. When her verbal pleas went ignored, she filed an official grievance and left it in her door slot. It was never answered. As fluid soaked through her pants, one jailer told Rhodes to use a tampon. When she started bleeding and passing blood clots, another told her to stop faking, according to the complaint.
According to the lawsuit, on Dec. 22, Rhodes was to go to a holding cell to await a transfer for medical treatment. By then, she was in pain and unable to walk, so guards dragged her on a sleeping mat to the cell. But she couldn’t wait any longer. Rhodes pounded on the cell door. Guards replied by warning her that they would physically restrain her if she continued.
On Dec. 23, before leaving for the five-hour drive to Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri, for treatment, guards allegedly shackled Rhodes’s wrists and ankles and attached them to a long chain wrapped around her belly, lest she run away. This despite the fact that there has yet to be a single instance of an escape attempt by a woman in labor, according to the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections (PDF).
Shackling pregnant women has been roundly condemned by medical professionals, law enforcement agencies, criminal justice groups, and human-rights advocates. In a 2011 opinion, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists called the practice “demeaning and rarely necessary.”
The U.S. Marshals Service (PDF), the Federal Bureau of Prisons (PDF), the American Correctional Association (PDF), the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, the United Nations Committee Against Torture, Amnesty International (PDF), the American Jail Association, the American Psychological Association (PDF), the Human Rights Project for Girls, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have all introduced standards and positions during the last decade opposing the use of restraints on pregnant women. These are non-enforceable guidelines, however, and therefore little help for the some 12,000 pregnant women incarcerated in our country’s jails and prisons.
Still, anti-shackling measures are on the rise. As of 2015, 22 states had laws against restraining pregnant women, according to the ACLU. Twenty-eight states have yet to restrict the practice; Missouri is one of them.
And so during the long drive, a shackled Rhodes continued to beg for a doctor while her fluid turned from clear to green. Her jailers stopped for gas. When they finally arrived at the correctional medical facility, a doctor sent her to a hospital, where they found her cervix was two centimeters dilated, all of her amniotic fluid had gone, her umbilical cord had stopped pulsing, and her baby—whose blackened foot had pushed through her vagina—had a heartbeat but was deprived of oxygen too long to be saved.
On Christmas Eve, Rhodes delivered a stillborn child.
“It’s disgusting,” Tony Rothert, legal director of the Missouri ACLU and Rhodes’s lawyer, said in a telephone interview with The Daily Beast. “To ignore her obvious need for medical care and the obvious suffering she was undergoing constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. It’s tantamount to torture.”
This is the ACLU’s second lawsuit in the last six months accusing officers in Missouri of shackling, chaining, and transporting a pregnant woman hundreds of miles to receive medical treatment. In October 2015, the organization filed suit on behalf of Megon Riedel, who allegedly endured similarly inhumane treatment though she was 39 weeks into a high-risk pregnancy, bleeding, and in severe pain during labor. Riedel’s baby survived.
The most recent lawsuit accuses Rhodes’s jailers of violation of her constitutional rights, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The ACLU is suing Mississippi County for what it claims is a policy of mistreating pregnant women and failure to supervise its correctional officers. The suit also names former jail administrator Cory Hutcheson and jail employees Carol Manning, Faith Altamirano, Sally Faye Gammons, Terri Lynn Bowman, and a Mr. Henry and Mr. Lee whose first names are unknown.
In response to a message to his campaign Facebook page, Hutcheson called Rhodes’s complaint “almost totally false” but declined to comment further.
Hutcheson, who is running for Missouri County sheriff, is no longer employed by the county after an incident in which the jailhouse was unattended, according to a report in the Southeast Missourian. Hutcheson disputed this account and told The Daily Beast, “I was fired because I’m running for sheriff.”
The Mississippi County Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment.
Three days after the lawsuit was filed, the Missouri state Senate reacted by unanimously approving a bill limiting the use of restraints on juvenile offenders that included a last-minute provision prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women.
In its current state, however, that law would apply only to the state Department of Corrections and wouldn’t have applied to Rhodes’s or Riedel’s cases.
Still, Rothert said, he’ll take what he can get.
“Little by little, one step at a time.”
Update: Former jail administrator Cory Hutcheson disputes the report claiming he was fired for leaving the detention center unattended. The article has been changed to include his assertion that he was fired because he is running for sheriff.