An Etowah County, Alabama, jail is detaining several pregnant women and new moms for allegedly using drugs while pregnant. None of the women, at least two of whom are Black, have been convicted despite being held in jail for months.
Under Alabama’s chemical endangerment law, which was interpreted in 2013 to protect fetuses, women who test positive for drugs while pregnant in Etowah County can be held until they attend a drug rehab facility and pay the county $10,000 in cash bail.
However, Emma Roth, a staff attorney for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women who is representing the women, says it’s not really that simple.
A combination of lack of space at these rehab facilities, lack of cash to pay $10,000 upfront, and in some cases not qualifying for in-patient rehab, has left these pregnant women stuck in jail for months.
Ashley Banks, 23, was detained in Etowah county after admitting she’d smoked pot the day she found out she was pregnant, according to reporting from AL.com. Because Banks didn’t qualify for drug rehab, she spent the next three months of her pregnancy in jail.
Because of overcrowding in her cell, Banks slept on the floor throughout her high-risk pregnancy, according to AL.com. She also told the news outlet that she bled for five weeks straight while in jail and suffered from hunger and fainting spells.
Hali Burns, a mother of two, was arrested six days after the birth of her son after testing positive for methamphetamine and Subutex, which is used to treat pregnant women with opioid addictions. Burns is challenging the drug test, saying it was a result of nasal medication she took.
According to AL.com, Burns said she was denied access to pads and new underwear despite bleeding for days after giving birth. Burns has also been separated from her children and newborn for months.
Etowah County Deputy District Attorney Carol Griffith stands by the county’s decision to keep Burns detained because of her failed drug test.
“This is an individual who desperately needs the help we are offering here today,” Griffith told AL.com.
On Aug. 19 Etowah County Circuit Court Judge Sonny Steen sided with the county and denied the petition for Burns’ release, according to AL.com.
“The purpose of bond in any criminal case is not only to ensure a Defendant’s appearance at trial but also to protect the community,” Steen wrote in his order. “The court has a duty to consider the safety of the children and others within our community. It is undisputed that the petitioner needs substance abuse treatment; she would have been placed in said treatment facility on Aug. 18, 2022, but for her positive drug tests the day prior.”
From Roth’s perspective, what’s happening in Etowah County is just plain wrong.
“Not only is that illegal from a constitutional standpoint, because the constitutional purposes of bail and bond are not punishment or encouraging somebody getting into treatment,” says Roth. “It just belies all public and scientific evidence… that these kinds of punitive responses to pregnancy and drug use actually harm both maternal and neonatal health.”