Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to stop requiring female inmates to take pregnancy tests

Alameda County Superior Court. Photo by Alicia Vargas.

Alameda County Superior Court. Photo by Alicia Vargas.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to stop requiring female inmates who are arrested and booked into Alameda County jails to take pregnancy tests. This agreement, reached on October 28, comes as an out-of-court settlement to a lawsuit that was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California.

Attorneys from the ACLU filed Harman v. Ahern in the Superior Court of the State of California in Alameda County on June 2, 2014. The suit represents three women who were all forced to take pregnancy tests in Alameda County jails, and it named Gregory Ahern, sheriff-coroner at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, as the defendant.

The suit alleged that mandatory pregnancy testing was a violation of the California Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, and state statutory law. “The policy violated a person’s legally protected right to privacy, constituted an unlawful search and seizure, and violated laws requiring jails to allow inmates to refuse non-emergency medical care,” according to the lawsuit.

In a letter dated December 20, 2010, Ahern wrote to ACLU attorney Michael T. Risher to explain the process. “Every female brought into our Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility is required to submit to a pregnancy test through urinalysis. Our accredited medical personnel conduct the pregnancy test so that we can provide the essential medical necessities needed by pregnant women in our care and custody. This information allows staff to expedite the booking process for these individuals or transfer them to Santa Rita Jail where we house female inmates and have an OBGYN clinic,” he wrote.

Sergeant J.D. Nelson, the Sheriff’s Department spokesperson, said the former policy of testing all women under age 60 grew out of a recommendation from the settlement of a previous lawsuit called Jones v. Dyer, which alleged there was inadequate prenatal care of women booked into the jails.

In 1986, female inmates represented by attorneys from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, sued the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and several other county administrators to make the tests available—although on a voluntary basis. The plaintiffs in Jones v. Dyer alleged that there was no obstetrician/gynecologist on staff at the jail, that there was an inadequate system of pregnancy screening at the time of booking, that pregnancy complications and emergencies often went untreated or were incorrectly handled and that plaintiffs were denied regular medical examinations.

The settlement agreement for that lawsuit was signed on November 3, 1989 and included provisions for immediate treatment of pregnant women at the time of booking, immediate pregnancy testing if desired, and treatment protocols and requirements for pregnant, drug- and alcohol-dependent women.

But Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director at the ACLU of Northern California, said that mandating pregnancy tests are a violation of personal rights. “The county’s stated intent was to protect the reproductive health of women in its custody, but forcing all female arrestees to undergo pregnancy testing violated their rights and left our clients feeling humiliated,” she said.

According to the Harman v. Ahern suit, Susan Harman, a resident of Oakland, was arrested in July, 2010, while participating in a protest relating to the shooting of Oscar Grant. She was taken to the Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility, located in Oakland, where she was required to take a pregnancy test, despite being 69 years old. Harman was not provided with additional medical care, she was never told the results of her pregnancy test, and she was never charged with a crime, according to the civil lawsuit.

Additionally, the lawsuit alleged, Nancy Mancias was arrested in August, 2012, during a political demonstration in Oakland. She was also taken to the Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility. According to the suit, Mancias was told to take a pregnancy test, which she agreed to due to a fear of further punishment. She did not receive any other medical screenings, she never received the results of the test, and she was not charged with a crime, according to the suit.

The suit also represented a third woman who wished to remain anonymous.

According to the settlement agreement signed by Ahern, representing the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, and by the ACLU and the plaintiffs in the case, there will now be a sign-in at the nurse’s office in each intake area of county jails where pregnancy testing occurs, advising women that the test is optional unless a judge orders it. A revised inmate handbook there will also indicate the pregnancy test is optional, and medical staff and deputies staffing the jails will be aware of the new policy.

Burlingame said the latest settlement is just one way the ACLU will keep working with the criminal justice system to make sure female prisoners are aware of their rights. “The ACLU will continue to work with Alameda County as well as jails across the state of California to make sure they are meeting the correct policies relating to women’s reproductive rights,” said Burlingame.

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