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Woman who gave birth in Macomb County jail files lawsuit

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Jessica Preston filed a lawsuit this month that says jail staff ignored her when she went into labor while being held in their facility.

A southeast Michigan woman who says she was forced to give birth in a jail cell in 2016 is now suing Macomb County and 10 other parties.

Jessica Preston was eight months into a potentially high-risk pregnancy when she was arrested for a traffic violation in the spring of 2016. Unable to pay her bond, she awaited trial in the Macomb County jail.

According to the lawsuit, she had told jail staff about her late-term pregnancy and her already-scheduled a C-section for the following month. But when she began to have contractions 5 days after being incarcerated, her complaints and requests to be taken to a hospital were essentially ignored by the doctors and nurses working at the jail.

When her pain worsened and she began to bleed, Preston was finally taken to the jail’s medical ward. Nurses assured her they wouldn’t let her baby be born in the jail, but the lawsuit says no one called Emergency Medical Services until the baby was crowning. That meant her baby would have to be born right there, on the floor of the jail cell.  

Preston’s son Elijah is now reported to be a healthy two-year-old. But the physical and mental side-effects Preston has suffered remain—and that’s part of the reason she’s suing for damages.

Her lawyer, Robert Irhie, believes jail staff violated Preston’s 14th amendment rights by showing an inhumane and deliberate indifference to her serious medical issue. Irhie says Preston also hopes the suit will protect other incarcerated mothers going forward.

“We must treat prisoners and detainees and people who are housed in county jails like human beings, and the reason we must do that is that that is exactly what they are,” Irhie said.

Read more: 18 people have died in the Macomb County Jail since 2012. This is one woman's story.

Macomb County jail has been flagged for denying detainees medical treatment in the past. It was even investigated by the FBI in 2015. However, Macomb County Corporation Counsel John Schapka says he doesn’t think any of Preston’s rights were violated by the incident. Schapka is representing three of the defendants in court, including Macomb County.

“Babies get born somewhere. All of us get born somewhere… There is no constitutional right to be born in a hospital, or any collateral right to be born outside of a jail,” Schapka says.  

Schapka has already filed a motion to get Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham off the defendants list. He plans to submit another motion to remove Corrections Officer Jeffery Rattray, who the complaint says swore at Preston while she was having contractions.  

Schapka thinks this will be a difficult case for Preston to argue. Nonetheless, Irhie is committed to fighting for Preston.

“These are hard cases… we have a heavy burden,” Ihrie says. “But we believe that we have the facts in this case to overcome that burden and we will work tirelessly and mightily to do so.”

Maya Goldman is a newsroom intern for Michigan Radio. She is currently a student at the University of Michigan, where she studies anthropology and writing. During the school year, Maya also works as a senior news editor and podcast producer for The Michigan Daily.
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