Alabama Jail Faces Lawsuit Over Mother: Attorneys for a mother in Alabama assert she endured nothing short of “torture” while incarcerated during pregnancy, facing denial of prescribed psychiatric medication and being compelled to give birth alone in a jail shower.
Gadsden, Alabama authorities detained Ashley Caswell during her high-risk pregnancy, ostensibly to safeguard the fetus from alleged drug use. However, after seven months of purported medical neglect, including sleeping on a mat on the floor, Caswell reportedly gave birth unassisted inside the jail’s unsanitary shower in October 2021. This alarming incident forms the basis of a federal lawsuit filed on October 13 against the Etowah County Detention Center.
Caswell’s screams for hours after her water broke, pleading for medication and hospitalization, were allegedly ignored by jail staff. After delivering alone, she handed the newborn to staffers who purportedly left her bleeding in the shower while taking photos with the baby. The umbilical cord, still attached to the placenta, moved violently inside Caswell’s body as she passed out from blood loss and pain.
According to Emma Roth, a senior staff attorney at Pregnancy Justice representing Caswell, upon finally reaching a hospital, Caswell received an iron infusion due to severe blood loss. Her newborn son was taken from her and placed in foster care. Caswell returned to the Etowah County Jail, allegedly enduring further abuse and medical neglect before being transferred to a state prison. Despite now being a toddler, Caswell remains incarcerated after failing a drug test and facing additional charges.
Caswell’s medical records indicated poor nutrition, high stress, and sleep loss during her jail pregnancy, deemed high-risk due to preexisting conditions. Prosecutors and jailers, under the guise of protecting the fetus, incarcerated Caswell for the second time on “fetal endangerment” charges.
This disturbing lawsuit sheds light on the impact of the anti-abortion movement and its concept of “fetal personhood” in Alabama, particularly after the 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion. Alabama leads the nation in criminalizing pregnancy, with at least 257 pregnant women and new mothers targeted for incarceration and forced rehab in Etowah County over the past decade.
The lawsuit details an unprecedented crackdown stemming from a 2006 “chemical endangerment” law and a 2013 Alabama Supreme Court interpretation of “fetal personhood.” This led to aggressive policing of pregnant individuals, tearing families apart in the name of protecting the unborn. Public outcry in September 2022 prompted a change in Etowah County policy, ending the practice of denying bail to pregnant individuals charged with “chemical endangerment.”
Etowah County District Attorney Jody Willoughby, who defended the criminalization and incarceration of pregnant women last year, has not responded to requests for comment. Pregnancy Justice cites multiple instances of alleged mistreatment at the Etowah County Detention Center, further highlighting the detrimental impact of such policies on maternal and fetal outcomes.
The Alabama Maternal Mortality Review Committee recommended eliminating punitive measures for pregnant individuals with mental health and substance use disorders in 2020. Despite the potential harm, Alabama’s stringent reproductive laws continue to instill fear in mothers, deterring them from seeking necessary medical care. The state’s near-total abortion ban, enacted by the Republican-controlled government after the 2022 Supreme Court ruling, adds to the challenges faced by pregnant individuals, especially those with substance use disorders.