USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

February 28, 1999

USA: "Not part of my sentence": Violations of the human rights of women in custody

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  • In accordance with international standards, jails and prisons should use restraints only when restraints are required as a precaution against escape or to prevent an inmate from injuring herself or other people or damaging property. In every case, due regard must be given to an inmate's individual history.
  • Policies on the use of restraints should prohibit their use on pregnant women when they are being transported and when they are in hospital awaiting delivery; on women who have just given birth; and on seriously sick inmates when they are being transported to, and when they are in, hospital.


On the night of April 20th, 1997, Arizona jail inmate Annette Romo, who was pregnant, began bleeding. "I told the guard and she said medical was not in at that time of night and there was nothing she could do. As the night went on the bleeding got worse and so did my stomach ache. I didn't sleep at all that night and when the guard passed by me I was crying and I told her the bleeding was getting worse and that I couldn't stand the stomach cramps I was having. She again told me there was nothing she could do." Annette Romo's bleeding continued through the night and the next day when she collapsed and was rushed to hospital and underwent surgery. "I still to this day have dreams about what happened...It was the worst thing I have ever experienced. If they would have only helped me when I first asked all this would not have happened nor would I have had to lose my baby."
Letter to Amnesty International, 22 February, 1998.
International standards specify that medical care must be provided to people who are detained or imprisoned whenever necessary, free of charge.(14) The US Supreme Court has also ruled that inmates have a right to adequate medical care for serious medical needs. Despite these international and national legal standards, many prisons and jails have failed to provide adequate health care, as the following cases illustrate.

California In 1995, women at two prisons in California (Central California Women's Facility and California Institute for Women) began legal action to obtain improved health care services.(15) The lawsuit cited a number of cases of poor medical treatment including:

  • Clarisse Shumate, who was suffering from sickle cell anaemia, heart problems, pulmonary hypertension and asthma, and experienced delays and interruptions in the provision of medication;
  • Beverly Tucker had long-standing blood-clots in her legs but was not given prescribed medication for the condition. As a result of her condition, she had to have a foot amputated.

In 1997 the women and the state of California agreed to settle the legal action on the basis of a number of undertakings by the state about health care services in the prisons.(16) The state's compliance with the agreement is being assessed by an independent monitoring team. In 1998, the first assessment by the team found that of 57 substantive provisions of the settlement agreement, the state had failed to comply with eleven, in whole or in part, at one or both prisons. Lawyers for the women contend that there are additional areas where the finding of compliance is in error.(17)

Florida A study of medical care over a five-year period (1992-1996) in a Florida jail holding men and women concluded that there was a persistent pattern of medical ill-treatment which in some cases amounted to torture under international law.(18) These are two of the cases reported by the study: