Woman Jailed for Becoming Pregnant, Then Died From Lack of Medical Treatment

by Cara on November 18, 2010

in human rights, law enforcement, misogyny, paternalism, patriarchy, pregnancy, reproductive justice, sex work, women’s health

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 allegations regarding how, exactly, she died are also particularly horrifying:

[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.

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{ 15 comments }

1 Amadi November 18, 2010 at 4:12 pm

She lived in my neighborhood, and the place where she was picked up on the prostitution charge is literally at the end of my street. It’s not a known prostitution stroll by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a bus stop, kitty-corner from a very busy bar and a barber shop that’s open to questionably late hours (do men get haircuts at 10 p.m.?) that have garnered some plainclothes police attention, which I’m guessing is what did her in. The intersection is notorious for busts for loitering, disturbing the peace and petty drug possession.

I did a little looking into the terms she violated, with a couple of phone calls, one to my aunt who’s recently retired from the Allegheny County Jail, where she was a social worker for women inmates. The violation seems to be not that she became pregnant per se, but the pregnancy was the proof that she had sex, something which is not permitted for those residing in these quasi-detention centers (14+ hours a day) while on “work release” programs. The gender-based problem there is an intense flashing red neon sign five miles tall and ten miles wide, of course.

I’m staying on top of this one. This jail gets away with far too much, especially where the women, and their health, are concerned. I might follow the court calendar and go sit in the gallery, see what more I can learn. This is all quite hinky on a lot of levels.

2 August November 19, 2010 at 9:49 am

Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Cara. This is nothing short of fucking horrific.

I do have to take issue with this, though (emphasis mine): “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, *most commonly cis women*, to control their own bodies and reproductive lives. ”

I would not say that cis women are more commonly denied rights regarding their bodies and reproductive lives than trans women, which is what that phrase seems to imply (although I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way). Let’s not forget the states that don’t allow trans women to change the M to F on their IDs without first requiring sterilization, for instance. It’s pretty darn common to treat ALL women, trans and cis, treat like this.

3 Cara November 19, 2010 at 10:38 am

Hi August, thanks for commenting.

I was slightly worried that it could be read that way. What I was attempting to emphasize was that women make up the vast majority of cases where the state attempts to control reproductive autonomy and reproductive decisions regarding becoming pregnant, while acknowledging a) that not all women are cis and have the ability to become pregnant and b) some people who are not women can also become pregnant and are also impacted by these violations that are aimed at cis women by misogynistic and cissexist systems. I thought the wording would be safe as cis women make up the majority of the types of violations I’m discussing the post, even though trans women are denied their reproductive autonomy in numbers proportionally higher than cis women, through different means.

Do you have any suggestions for how I might have been able to word that better to get the same point across — that violations regarding who can and can’t become pregnant are misogynistic in intent and mostly impact women, without implying that all women are cis or that only women are affected — without the result of erasing the experiences of trans women? You’re of course not at all obligated to! But if it just so happens that you do, it would be useful for avoiding the same error in the future.

4 Alex November 19, 2010 at 1:37 pm

>>some people who are not women can also become pregnant and are also impacted by these violations that are aimed at cis women by misogynistic and cissexist systems. I thought the wording would be safe as cis women make up the majority of the types of violations I’m discussing the post, even though trans women are denied their reproductive autonomy in numbers proportionally higher than cis women, through different means.

First off cis people, cis women included, are not adverse affected by cissexism, anymore than white people are hurt by racism.

>>Do you have any suggestions for how I might have been able to word that better to get the same point across

A better way of phrasing it would be “people who can get pregnant, who are disproportionately women”.

5 Cara November 19, 2010 at 2:31 pm

First off cis people, cis women included, are not adverse affected by cissexism, anymore than white people are hurt by racism.

Ahhhhhh, sorry, more unclear phrasing!!!! I meant that the system was cissexist by targeting cis women through their reproductive capacity, because the this only acknowledges cis women as being capable of getting pregnant — erasing trans men and people of other genders or non-genders who can become pregnant — and because it treats all women as though they must be cis. I did not mean that the system is “cissexist” against cis women! I meant that the system was cissexist by saying “let’s find a way to attack women” and then actually choosing a way to attack people who can get pregnant, as though they’re one in the same. I’m sorry, I should have found a better way to phrase that, too.

And you’re right, that is better phrasing, and I’ve updated the post (with a note) to reflect that. Thank you!

6 Danica November 19, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Hi All,

When people live in halfway-houses they are only allowed to leave for approved reasons (ie to find a job, work, etc). The reason she was put back in to the prison system was not because she was pregnant, but because the pregnancy was proof positive that she had been violating the terms of her probation by using the time away from the halfway house for unapproved purposes (ie sex).

This is not to say that what happened to her wasn’t horrible… but the court system is not trying to take away her right to get pregnant, it’s merely trying to help her become established as she exits the prison system. Although it may be questionable whether she should have been there in the first place.

7 Cara November 19, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Danica,

I don’t care what they were “trying” to do. The reason they jailed her is because she got pregnant. That is taking away her right to get pregnant. So is taking away someone’s right to have sex, for that matter. I understand what halfway houses are for. And I think that at least in theory, they serve a very important purpose. I just don’t think that the state should be able to forcibly impose celibacy on those who live in them.

8 william November 19, 2010 at 7:18 pm

I’ve spent time in jails and prison and the mistreatment of prisoners is quite common and the denial of medical treatment. Whats sad to me is it has to be something this extreme for anyone to start paying attention. I recently spent 60 days in desoto county mississipi jail and there was 27 people kept in a six man cell with 13 beds. Whats really a joke is you can go to jail for mistreating an animal!! I hope that someone actually has to pay for this negligence and not just money but criminal charges also!

9 speedbudget November 20, 2010 at 7:36 am

Also, Danica, while ostensibly there is a policy against having sex, the only way there is any proof positive that sex happened, unless somebody witnessed it, is by a person (usually the woman) becoming pregnant. Since men (usually) can’t get pregnant, this particular policy can only really be policed on women.

It’s similar to the policies of not allowing high school girls who are visibly pregnant to participate in graduation ceremonies while allowing the boy who impregnated her to participate fully. It’s discriminatory on its face, since it’s only enforced on the woman.

10 GallingGalla November 20, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Ms. Gillespie was murdered by the state via the prison system, plain and simple. All over less than $150 worth of petty theft and her and another adult making a consensual arrangement to have sex for payment.

It makes me sick.

11 bfp November 22, 2010 at 1:17 pm

how is her pregnancy proof positive that she was where she wasn’t supposed to be? Unfortunately, prison guards and those at half way houses and probation officers have been known to rape.

12 Kei November 30, 2010 at 2:35 am

@william:

“Whats really a joke is you can go to jail for mistreating an animal!!”

Are you suggesting that people should not go to jail for mistreating an animal? Because even if you hold the position that an animal is not a creature worthy of respect or safety (I don’t), animal neglect and abuse is a dangerous warning sign that often leads to human neglect and abuse. It shows a basic lack of empathy and need for power and control that is extremely anti-social and detrimental – moreso than many other crimes that we jail people for.

13 Cara November 30, 2010 at 9:07 am

Kei, I think William’s point was that it’s ironic that you can go to jail for mistreating an animal, when jails spend so much of their existence mistreating humans. At least, that was my understanding of it. I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t have approved a comment that I understood to be suggesting the mistreatment of animals should not be considered a crime.

14 Bhriste December 2, 2010 at 4:53 am

The way I see it, there are two issues arising from this case that ought to be addressed.

Firstly, the fact that an ailing woman was neglected, while pregnant, to the point where her illness caused her death, is an appalling case of neglect that I’m sure is mirrored in thousands of other cases in prisons across the US. Something needs to be done about this as a whole through drastic prison reform.

But secondly, perhaps more unique to this case as it’s the one that’s brought this fact to light (at least to me) – the fact that not becoming pregnant can be a term of parole is more than a little disturbing. I didn’t know that! That’s terrible! Is this legal in all states? Is this legal in other countries?

Does anyone have any more information on this matter?

15 Mike December 8, 2010 at 3:46 am

Such a system of state is worthy to die with this poor woman!

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