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St. Louis County Jailed a Pregnant Woman For 39 Days Because She Refused a Paternity Test

Adrianna Thurman said she was informed by jail staff after her release that she had ‘slipped through the cracks.’

Gabriele Mammel/EyeEm

Adrianna Thurman was seven months pregnant when she was arrested and booked at the St. Louis County Jail on Oct. 2, 2018. She was not accused of any crime, yet she remained in jail for the next 39 days.

Thurman was being held in contempt of the St. Louis County Family Court, after not submitting her two young children to a court-ordered paternity test requested by her ex-boyfriend, Erwin Rush. She had told a court official that Rush was not the father of her children, and that his request for a test was an attempt to stalk and harass her.

Since Thurman’s case was civil, not criminal, she was not provided with counsel. She did not see a doctor until two weeks after her arrival, according to court documents Thurman filed after her release. During her time in jail, Thurman alleges, jail officials did not provide the limited accommodations typically given to pregnant women, such as an extra mattress and blanket. She says her repeated requests to speak with a caseworker to figure out why she was being held on a civil charge went unfulfilled. And according to her complaint, even when her ex-boyfriend’s attorney repeatedly asked the division clerk of the court to set a hearing before the court commissioner, he refused to do so, incorrectly claiming that hearings must be initiated by jail officials.

When Thurman was released on Nov. 9, she was eight months pregnant, had been separated from her children for 39 days, and had lost her job and housing. She soon gave birth to her daughter prematurely, which she alleges was the “direct result of the wrongful incarceration.” Postnatal testing revealed she was suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer, which had gone undetected during her jail stay. A paternity test showed Rush was not the father of her children, according to the lawsuit.

This month, Thurman filed a civil lawsuit in federal court, alleging that her extended stay in jail over a civil matter violated her rights under the Fourth, Eighth, and 14th Amendments.

In her complaint, Thurman charges that a series of misconduct and errors led to her lengthy incarceration. She says she was not notified that Family Court Commissioner Mary Greaves had ordered a paternity test. And when she refused to submit her children to the test and the opposing attorney filed a motion for contempt, Commissioner Greaves ordered her arrest, even though the contempt motion was never served to Thurman in person, as the law requires.

Thurman also argues that Missouri law dictates she was eligible for $100 bond. Her arrest order, however, stated she would be detained without bond. She was taken to Family Court the day after her arrest, but never brought before Greaves. After that, the court clerk, Michael Young, did not schedule a hearing for 36 days. When Thurman finally went before the commissioner on Nov. 8, according to her complaint, she was lectured about the paternity test and sent back to jail. Greaves’s order that day stated, “This Court will order Respondent be released when Petitioner’s attorney has reported the genetic testing has been completed.”

When Thurman was released, she was eight months pregnant, had been separated from her children for 39 days, and had lost her job and housing.

Alarmed by Thurman’s continued incarceration and late-stage pregnancy, the opposing attorney and the guardian ad litem (appointed by the court to represent the interests of the children) filed an emergency motion for release, notifying Circuit Judge Mary Elizabeth Ott the next day that the paternity test had been completed. Ott ordered Thurman’s immediate release.

Thurman’s suit names St. Louis County, Sheriff Jim Buckles, and Young as defendants. The County Court public information officer said the court cannot comment on pending litigation, and a representative from the jail did not respond to a request for comment. As a judicial officer, Commissioner Greaves has absolute immunity from lawsuits. Thurman’s complaint also expresses concern that “there is no policy or custom in place in the State of Missouri or St. Louis County that causes or requires a person arrested on a civil warrant to be brought promptly before a judge.”

“It’s scary,” said Thurman’s attorney, Chelsea Merta. “One minute you’re just living your life, taking care of your kids and going to work, and then the next minute police are knocking on your door saying that you’re in contempt for something that you didn’t even really know was happening, and being locked up for 39 days and losing everything. And having your entire world flipped upside down.”

Being pregnant in jail or prison can be dangerous and even deadly. About 3.8 percent of newly admitted prisoners were pregnant in a single year, according to a recently published study on pregnancy outcomes in U.S. prisons. In March, Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, the study’s author, told NPR that “pregnant incarcerated people are one of the most marginalized and forgotten groups in our country. People in general don’t often think about what happens to people behind bars. People think even less about the fact that there are pregnant women behind bars, or even consider it as a possibility.”

Incarcerated women are frequently shackled while giving birth, a practice the First Step Act banned for federal prisoners but that persists in many states. When journalist Victoria Law investigated the experience of pregnant incarcerated women for In These Times in 2015, she found that “many received no medical care or experienced long waits. Most were constantly hungry. Others were restrained during labor, delivery or postpartum recovery, even in states that ban the practice.”

Thurman’s suit says she was informed by jail staff after her release that she had “slipped through the cracks” because they were unsure how to handle someone booked on a civil warrant.

After several deaths this year, the St. Louis County Council has launched an investigation into problems with medical care at the county jail. A 20-year-old man, Lamar Catchings, died in his cell on March 1 after a rapid, seemingly unnoticed physical decline from undiagnosed leukemia. In February, John Shy died in the infirmary after crying and screaming for help for hours, prompting an internal investigation into whether jail staff had disabled the call buttons. And in January, after Larry “Jay” Reavis died in the infirmary, another incarcerated man told police that an officer had shrugged off warnings that Reavis was having a seizure.” The jail did not send a representative to a council hearing on Tuesday, where family members and friends spoke about their deceased loved ones and called for answers.

Thurman seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as a judgment that detaining people on civil warrants “without prompt access to the judicial system is unconstitutional.”

Her lawyer says she is still suffering from the consequences of her prolonged incarceration.

“Adrianna has a significant amount of medical treatment that needs to be covered, because of the premature birth of her child and due to the undiagnosed cancer that went untreated for a significant amount of time,” said Merta. “She lost her job. She lost her housing. There have been all sorts of things that need to be remedied because of this judicial oversight, police oversight, all of these errors that were made on behalf of a system that’s supposed to protect people’s interests, not infringe upon them.”

“At the end of the day, she is entitled to damages under federal law and state law, with regards to what happened,” Merta added. “But then, she’s also dedicated to ensuring that this doesn’t happen to anyone again.”