Legal advocates have secured the release of five pregnant and postpartum women who were detained in Etowah County, Alabama, to “protect” their fetuses. However, several other pregnant and postpartum women held under similar circumstances remain jailed indefinitely.
The five women were arrested earlier this year for allegedly using drugs while pregnant. Despite being held in jail for months, none of these women were ever convicted.
In addition to securing the women’s release, advocates helped usher in a new policy that will make it harder to jail pregnant people for failing drug tests. However, they will still be required to pay a $2,500 bond and be drug tested every 48 to 72 hours.
Prior to the policy change, people who tested positive for drugs while pregnant in Etowah County could be held indefinitely until they attended a drug rehab facility and paid the county $10,000 in cash bail.
But as Emma Roth, a staff attorney for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women who worked to secure these women’s release, explains, it’s not really that simple.
A combination of lack of space at these rehab facilities, lack of cash to pay $10,000 upfront, and in some cases, not qualifying for in-patient rehab left these women stuck in jail for months.
Ashley Banks, 23, was detained in Etowah county after admitting she’d smoked pot the day she found out she was pregnant, according to reporting from AL.com. Because Banks didn’t qualify for drug rehab, she spent the next three months of her pregnancy in jail.
Because of overcrowding in her cell, Banks slept on the floor throughout her high-risk pregnancy, according to AL.com. She also told the news outlet that she bled for five weeks straight while in jail and suffered from hunger and fainting spells.
Hali Burns, a mother of two, was arrested six days after the birth of her son after testing positive for methamphetamine and Subutex, which is used to treat pregnant women with opioid addictions. Burns is challenging the drug test, saying it was a result of nasal medication she took.
According to AL.com, Burns said she was denied access to pads and new underwear despite bleeding for days after giving birth. Burns has also been separated from her children and newborn for months.
Etowah County Deputy District Attorney Carol Griffith stands by the county’s decision to keep Burns detained because of her failed drug test.
“This is an individual who desperately needs the help we are offering here today,” Griffith told AL.com.
On Aug. 19, Etowah County Circuit Court Judge Sonny Steen sided with the county and denied the petition for Burns’ release, according to AL.com.
“The purpose of bond in any criminal case is not only to ensure a Defendant’s appearance at trial but also to protect the community,” Steen wrote in his order. “The court has a duty to consider the safety of the children and others within our community. It is undisputed that the petitioner needs substance abuse treatment; she would have been placed in said treatment facility on Aug. 18, 2022, but for her positive drug tests the day prior.”
Burns and Banks have now been released.
From Roth’s perspective, what’s happened in Etowah County, which has some of the highest rates of pregnancy-related criminalization cases in the country, is just plain wrong.
“Not only is that illegal from a constitutional standpoint, because the constitutional purposes of bail and bond are not punishment or encouraging somebody getting into treatment,” says Roth. “It just belies all public and scientific evidence… that these kinds of punitive responses to pregnancy and drug use actually harm both maternal and neonatal health.”