In 2021, wardens at Etowah County Detention Center (ECDC) in Alabama left inmate Ashley Caswell alone to deliver her son in a jailhouse shower, a recent federal civil rights lawsuit states.
The case highlights the urgent need for immediate and radical pro-life reforms to protect incarcerated mothers and their children in Alabama and nationwide.
After a high-risk pregnancy, Caswell begged to be taken to a hospital when she went into labor on October 16. During her 12-hour labor, the prison’s medical staff offered her Tylenol before taking her to the facility’s shower to give birth. Prison staff took selfies with the baby while the mother lay unconscious on the floor, internally bleeding.
Emergency responders arrived and transported Caswell to a local hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with a placental abruption, a rare, life-threatening condition in which the placenta detaches from the uterine wall before the second stage of labor begins.
Caswell survived after receiving two iron transfusions, the suit states. When she was returned to the detention center, the prison staff “again forced Ms. Caswell to sleep on the floor and denied her basic care, including her physician-prescribed Ibuprofen to manage the pain from her delivery and a breast pump to allow her to express breastmilk and prevent agonizing pain and infection,” the suit recounts.
Caswell’s suit names 21 defendants, including the Etowah County sheriff, prison employees, and the medical group servicing the detention center.
Caswell had been detained when two months pregnant under Alabama’s Code 1975, “Chemical Endangerment of a Child.” The law dates to 2006, when state lawmakers cracked down on illegal drug trafficking, and was intended to protect children living in homes that had been converted into methamphetamine labs.
In 2018, those protections were extended to unborn children when 59% of Alabamians voted in favor of Amendment 2, recognizing the rights of the legal personhood of in utero children. Etowah County law enforcement arrested 257 pregnant women and postpartum mothers under Code 1975 between 2015 and 2023.
Even as the state shows strong legislative trends to recognize the dignity of unborn children, Caswell’s case shows that the justice system has a long way to go in embracing a pro-life justice system.
Since 2018, three other mothers have filed complaints against the jail for medical negligence during their pregnancies, deliveries, and postpartum care. In 2016, the A&E series “60 Days In” showed the ECDC staff’s harsh treatment of incarcerated women.
If the allegations prove true, Alabama lawmakers must immediately address their prison staff’s inexcusable negligence of pregnant women in the state’s prison system.
In the wake of the story, CatholicVote Political Director Logan Church had strong words for her fellow Alabamians. “This is unfortunately another heartbreaking example of what disregard for human life looks like,” she said. “When we fall victim to the false narrative that we have the power to determine an individual’s inherent value, it opens the door for consequences such as this.”
“I hope justice is served and the Alabama legislature works tirelessly until this issue is addressed,” Church added.
Acknowledging the personhood of the unborn child must also include a demand for humane treatment of the mother. The purpose of Alabama’s Amendment 2 is utterly thwarted when the prison system ignores the health, both physical and mental, of the women carrying these children.
The men and women responsible should be held to the highest standards of justice, which must acknowledge the radical interdependence of mother and child.