Trigger Warning for prison abuse, specifically denial of medical treatment, and reproductive rights violations.
At the beginning of this year, a 27-year-old woman named Amy Lynn Gillespie died (h/t @DCdebbie). She was 18 weeks pregnant, and died in a hospital after being transferred there by Allegheny County Jail, which was currently detaining her. The problem is that they apparently transferred her much too late, and Gillespie’s mother is now suing the county, among others:
Amy Lynn Gillespie, of Cuddy and, later, Knoxville, was jailed in December for violating the terms of her work release by becoming pregnant. Initially found to be in good health, according to the complaint filed by Downtown attorney Robert N. Peirce, she was complaining by the end of that month of difficulty breathing and discharge from her lungs.
Treated for viral influenza and denied diagnostic tests, according to the complaint, she worsened and then was transferred on Jan. 1 to UPMC Mercy. There she was found to have bacterial pneumonia, too far advanced to be successfully treated with antibiotics. She and the fetus, then 18 weeks along, died Jan. 13.
Mr. Peirce filed the civil rights lawsuit for the deceased’s mother, Luann Gillespie Shultz.
But let us back up just a minute — she was jailed because she was pregnant? Yes, indeed she was.
Ms. Gillespie’s legal troubles started with a pair of shoplifting convictions in 2004. In 2007, she was caught taking shampoo and steak from the Bridgeville Giant Eagle, and told the arresting officer that she did it because she was hungry. That year she was also caught stealing two $55 silver rings from Macy’s, Downtown.
In 2008, she was picked up for soliciting men on Brownsville Road. Put on probation, she was referred to the Program for Reintegration Development and Empowerment of Exploited Individuals, which offers counseling and services to women arrested for prostitution.
She didn’t comply with her probation terms and was sentenced to six to 12 months of jail or alternative housing in February 2009. Mr. Peirce said she would have been released around the beginning of this year had she not become pregnant, been jailed, and gotten sick. He said UPMC Mercy did not appear to be liable.
So she stole some shampoo and steak, and then some lower-end jewelry from a major department store. Then she was caught in the act of engaging in sex work, which should be legal anyway. As a result, she was placed on probation — a term of which that she not become pregnant. And when she did become pregnant, she was jailed.
Which is to say that for shoplifting less than $200 worth of merchandise and using her own body as she saw fit, the state robbed her of the right to make her own reproductive choices. Let us just sit for a moment with the fact that an individual cannot take a $55 ring from Macy’s, but the government can take one’s fundamental right to decide what to do with hir own reproductive capacity. Let us just reflect on how much more highly the U.S. government regards the right of multimillion dollar corporations to their petty property than the right of individuals who can get pregnant, disproportionately women*, to control their own bodies and reproductive lives. The former right cannot be violated without punishment; the latter right is routinely violated as a means of punishment.
Now, to be clear, I am not even remotely suggesting that if Gillespie’s crimes had been more severe, it would have been acceptable to deny her the medical treatment she needed to go on living; this is never okay, even for those guilty of the most horrific crimes. What I am suggesting is that the requirement that Gillespie not become pregnant is wholly wrong, misogynistic, and abusive — indeed, no matter what crime she committed. What I am suggesting is that she never should have been jailed for what she did with her own reproductive capacity, whether intentional or not. No, it is not acceptable to deny any detained person medical treatment. But it’s also not acceptable to detain a person who has done nothing wrong. Gillespie should not have been in that jail to begin with. And this would be a travesty of justice even if she were still alive.
But she’s not still alive. She’s dead, and she didn’t have to die, and someone is to blame for the fact that she did. Someone is to blame for the fact that she didn’t get the medical treatment she needed in time to survive. And when the government detains anybody, with or without legitimate reason, they are ultimately 100% responsible for ensuring that those people receive any and all needed medical care promptly and respectfully. In this case, they clearly failed. With Gillespie dead of a treatable ailment, there’s absolutely no other way to look at it.
[The lawsuit] alleges that while Gillespie was serving a 30-day jail sentence, at least one guard ignored her request for help and the jail’s medical staff failed to diagnose her pneumonia early enough.
“Stick it out,” one guard told Gillespie when she asked for help three weeks before her death, the lawsuit states. […]
Gillespie nearly completed her original sentence for retail theft when she got pregnant, a violation of terms in her halfway house, Peirce said. She arrived in the jail Dec. 2, and though she complained to guards for weeks about breathing trouble and discharge from her lungs, she wasn’t sent to the infirmary until Dec. 29, according to the lawsuit.
The medical staff first diagnosed her problem as viral influenza. After three days, jail staff sent Gillespie to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed pneumonia and noted that the jail didn’t treat her fast enough, according to the lawsuit.
She was sedated and breathing with the help of tubes for nearly all of the two weeks she spent in the hospital before she died.
We’ll have to wait to see if all of the allegations pan out, but the fact is that they are not even remotely unusual. Claims of medical treatment being denied while in detention are extraordinarily common. Our governments routinely fail to treat detained persons humanely, and few people care because of how severely we’ve dehumanized any and all people who are in jail or prisons, and internalized the notion that they deserve whatever indignities we impose on them. No one cares because we’ve decided that “bad” people aren’t really people anymore, and that all people in jail or prison must be bad. Even if all they did to get there was get pregnant.
It’s time to stop denying people of their fundamental human rights. It’s time to stop detaining them when they’ve done nothing to materially harm anybody. It’s time to stop treating people who cause harm like they, too, deserve harm, no matter how appealing vengeance may feel. It’s time to stop treating other human beings’ bodies like property, to stop seeing health care as a privilege, to stop behaving as though we have any right whatsoever to tell other people what they can and cannot do with their own bodies and reproductive functions. Not a single case of denying a person’s right to make their own reproductive decisions is acceptable. Not a single case of prizing property over human beings is right. Not a single case of letting someone die because we thought they were a liar, or worthless, or a slut, or whatever, is okay.
We’re seeing all of these things right here, but they happen separately all the time. They’re all culpable for Amy Gillespie’s death. And if we keep the system going as it is, there will inevitably be more like her.
*EDIT: Language changed. See comments, with thanks to August.