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Pregnant Woman in Pennsylvania Jail Denied Release

An Erie County judge said the pregnant 20-year-old would be ‘safer’ in jail from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Face in shadow
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

On April 28, four weeks after giving birth via C-section while on a ventilator, Andrea Circle Bear died from COVID-19 in Texas. She appears to be the first woman who was pregnant while incarcerated to have died from the disease in prison.

That was a fate that Leeasia Magnolia Jones, now in her third trimester of pregnancy, is hoping  to avoid. The 20-year-old is jailed in Erie County, Pennsylvania, awaiting transfer to a state prison. In early April, Jones was sentenced to nine to 26 months, and five and a half years of probation for retail theft, resisting arrest, and false identification to law enforcement. Jones will spend the rest of her pregnancy behind bars and, like Circle Bear, give birth while in custody. 

Jones and her attorney, Nicole Sloane, filed a motion for release on March 16. On March 18, Jones appeared in the Erie County courthouse, where Sloane argued that Jones’s pregnancy placed her at heightened risk if she were to contract the novel coronavirus. Sloane also told The Appeal that social distancing and self-imposed quarantine were “not possible” for Jones because many of the women in the jail were held together in close quarters. By early April, the jail had released approximately 150 people in the hopes of minimizing the spread of the virus. (There have been no reported or confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the jail, with the exception of one woman who was jailed overnight for failing to self-isolate after testing positive for COVID-19.) Jones, however, was not one of them.

Judge Daniel Brabender disagreed with Sloane. As the Erie Times-News first reported, in a March 18 decision, Brabender noted that the jail has no confirmed coronavirus cases  and Jones has a history of committing crimes, even while on probation. He concluded that she and her fetus may be “safer” in jail, so Jones was returned to there. Brabender did not respond to a request to The Appeal’s request for comment. 

Across the country, as cases and deaths from COVID-19 mount, advocates are calling for the immediate release of incarcerated people who are at heightened risk of contracting the disease, including those who are aging, immunocompromised, or pregnant. 

Carolyn Sufrin is the director of the research group Advocacy and Research on Reproductive Wellness of Incarcerated People, which collects statistics on pregnancy and incarceration. In a yearlong survey of six jails across the country, including five of the nation’s largest, the group found that 1,622 pregnant people were admitted to jail, approximately 3 percent of all female admissions. Extrapolating that to the 1.8 million women arrested annually comes out to an estimated 55,000 pregnant people each year. 

Little is known about the effects of the novel coronavirus on pregnancies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the information available suggests that pregnant people are not at higher risk than adults who are not pregnant. However, both the CDC and Sufrin note that pregnant women are at greater risk of severe morbidity and death from other respiratory infections, such as the flu. The CDC notes a small number of reported problems, such as preterm birth, in babies born to mothers who test positive for the coronavirus late in their pregnancy, but cautions “we do not know if these problems were related to the virus.”

What we do know, said Sufrin, is that the combination of incarceration and coronavirus is dangerous. In jails and prisons, large numbers of people are kept in small spaces, making social distancing impossible. Furthermore, incarcerated people lack the autonomy to make decisions about whether and when to isolate themselves from others; they may lack access to soap and water and medical care. 

“Prisons and jails are sites where infections can be rapidly transmitted,” Sufrin said. At the same time, jail and prison conditions impede the ability to maintain a safe and healthy pregnancy because they often have inadequate access to timely medical care. Sufrin also points out that, as correctional health workers become sick themselves, medical care will be stretched even thinner, further impeding access.   

In a March 24 email to The Appeal, District Attorney Jack Daneri wrote: “Ms. Jones has a history which involves drugs and retail theft.  She was being detained on probation violations for continuing to commit crimes while free on supervision.” He noted that his office was concerned that, if released, Jones would fail to appear in court. Furthermore, he pointed to Brabender’s decision, which noted that “given her current lifestyle, Ms. Jones, and more importantly, her unborn child, are less at risk in the Erie County Prison.”  

“That is a deeply flawed and dangerous perspective,” said Sufrin. “These are still places of punishment. They have very constrained resources. Thinking of this as a protective strategy for coronavirus … is extremely short-sighted.” 

That seems to be the rationale in some other states where governors, under pressure from outside advocates, are taking steps to release pregnant and postpartum women from custody. In Illinois, all five mothers and newborns in the prison nursery were released. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine requested that judges consider early release for 23 women who were pregnant or had a child in the state prison. (Ohio has a prison nursery; as of March, four babies were in it.) In New York, after the Legal Aid Society demanded in a letter that 10 pregnant women in state prison be released, Governor Andrew Cuomo and prison officials announced the release of eight of those women from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.  

As of May 10, Erie County had 124 confirmed cases of COVID-19, more than 25 times the confirmed cases reported about three weeks earlier on March 23.