Women Behind Bars - An American Tragedy of Medical Neglect and Jail Abuse

Women Behind Bars - An American Tragedy of Medical Neglect and Jail Abuse
Shade Swayzer

Over the last few years, the male population of U.S. jails has declined, and the female population has risen. A Reuters investigation has brought to light several stories that illustrate how ill-prepared the system is to receive a rising number of female inmates. One of the most shocking cases involves a woman who was left to give birth alone “in a filthy cell.” Her child did not survive the ordeal.

The woman, Shade Swayzer, was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and spent a week at Milwaukee County Jail before giving birth. She was evaluated by a doctor, which means the authorities knew she was close to her due date. Because she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Shade was put in a special needs unit, where she was supposed to be monitored regularly. But the jail didn't have enough cells for women in the special unit, and she was soon moved to an isolation cell.

A pregnant woman with a mental health diagnosis was left completely alone in solitary confinement. How can America's broken correctional system justify the fact that our taxpayer dollars were used to pay people who made that decision? In what dystopian scenario can a schizophrenic woman pay her 'debt to society' with the life of her child?

A guard making a round only noticed something was wrong with Swayzer when he smelled the baby's corpse. When a nurse was finally summoned, Shade was holding her dead child in her arms and begging, “Don’t hurt my baby.”

Pregnant women and those with a mental diagnosis rarely receive the medical attention they require behind bars. Over the last ten years, the number of women held in U.S. jails has risen over 20 percent. America's jails have been largely unable to cope with this shifting population.

Female Inmate Statistics

In a 500-jail sample:

  • 914 women died between 2008 and 2019
  • 24% of them were black
  • 70% were unconvicted
  • 12% of deaths linked to drugs/alcohol between 2008 and 2016
  • 24% of deaths linked to drugs/alcohol between 2017 and 2019
  • 65 female inmates suffered serious pregnancy-related complications between 2010 and 2019

Female inmates who are addicted to drugs or alcohol seldom receive the appropriate treatment while experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Potentially suicidal women with a mental diagnosis seldom receive their medication. In most cases, it was their mental condition that landed them in jail in the first place.

Women, and especially women of color, are victimized by jail neglect and abuse in disproportionate numbers. Without transparency in the system, we have to rely on journalists to learn what's going on behind bars. As the authorities fail to address jail abuse and neglect, the victims and their families have to file a lawsuit if they want the culprits to be held accountable.

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