Sen. Shevrin Jones has worked for years to increase protections for women inmates in Florida. But a tragedy in an Alachua County jail this past summer had Jones reeling and recommitted to those efforts.
“To see what happened in Alachua County only goes to show that our work that we have done in the past on this issue is far from over,” Jones said.
He’s referring to Erica Thompson, who gave birth after being arrested on charges of probation violation and failure to appear for a traffic violation. Thompson was six months pregnant and told staff she was expecting. She argued administrators did not take adequate precautions. She gave birth to her premature baby girl, Ava, while screaming for help. Ava was transferred to a hospital but did not survive.
The incident triggered protests and calls for reform. The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office has promised to investigate. But Jones also stepped in with a bill seeking to avoid the situation that Thompson found herself in this past August.
Jones’ legislation (SB 630), filed ahead of the 2022 Legislative Session, requires jails to honor requests for a pregnancy test shortly after an arrest. He’s teaming up with Democratic Rep. Dianne Hart, who is sponsoring a companion bill in the House (HB 363). Women who are not released within the first 72 hours would be allowed to request a test under the bill. That test would need to be administered within 24 hours of the request.
“This allows for the facility and the administrators to know ahead of time that they have a woman within their facility who is pregnant,” Jones said. “The reason why I believe that this is so important is because if we are depending on that question to be asked after the fact, you never know what can happen after that woman gets into that facility.”
That could avoid any situation where a jail staffer may doubt claims by an inmate and it would allow administrators to prepare for a possible birth.
But the legislation goes further. The legislation would task the Department of Corrections with collecting data on the number of births in jail, the number of stillbirths or miscarriages, the number of women who experience complications and several other data points. That information would help officials better understand how often jail staff faces these situations and better prepare for possible complications.
Judges would be required to offer women who are being sentenced a 12-week deferral for that sentence after the end of a pregnancy. That obviously covers births, but also could cover situations where the inmate decides to have an abortion.
“If the pregnancy ends at any time before the delivery of the baby, the deferral period will end 12 weeks from the date the pregnancy ends,” Jones’ bill reads.
It remains to be seen whether that clause will remain a sticking point for Florida Republicans, who have sought to discourage abortions in the state.
“It probably will come up as a discussion, and I will also say it’s not a dealbreaker,” Jones conceded. “If that’s one of the provisions that would railroad the bill, I’m fine with us negotiating and talking through what that looks like, whether in or whether out.”
Jones’ main concern is situations like Thompson’s where a child is lost after an in-jail birth. Jones has dubbed this year’s legislation “Ava’s Law” in honor of Thompson’s lost daughter.
This is far from the first time Jones, a West Park Democrat, has focused on the rights of women inmates during his time in the Legislature. In 2019, while Jones was finishing his final term in the House, he helped shepherd through the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act,” which required staff to provide feminine hygiene products, toothbrushes and toilet paper at no cost to inmates. In 2020, Jones followed that up with a bill reducing the use of solitary confinement for women inmates.
Jones said while these women may be facing consequences for prior criminal acts, he’s focused on not letting the system forget their basic rights.
“We have a responsibility to protect those individuals who are incarcerated,” Jones said. “Just because they’re incarcerated does not mean that they’re any less human or that they don’t deserve the dignity and respect that any one of us deserve. Regardless of what they have done, if they are in our care and within our custody, we owe it to make sure that we protect their health.”