A night of ‘hell’: abortion activists on their ‘inhumane’ detention in DC

As abortion rights are rolled back, more citizens seeking access to reproductive healthcare may face similar treatment

Three women who peacefully protested against restrictions on abortion rights in the US supreme court were mistreated and detained in “inhumane” conditions after their arrest, they say.

Their experience shows unsettling treatment in a landscape where pregnant people, medical providers and others increasingly face criminalization after the Dobbs decision on reproductive care.

The women – a 71-year-old great-grandmother, a suburban soccer mom and a therapeutic massage therapist – arrived at the supreme court before sunrise, waiting more than four hours for tickets to attend a hearing open to the public on 2 November.

Emily Paterson, a CEO and mom of two who lives in northern Virginia, stood up first. “I respectfully rise to denounce Dobbs. Women of America, vote,” she said, holding her hands up to show they were empty.

Then Rolande Baker, a great-grandmother and former schoolteacher who lives in Tucson, Arizona, stood to say: “The right to choose will not be taken away. Women, vote for our right to choose,” followed by Nikki Enfield, who said: “We will restore our freedom to choose. Women of America, vote!”

Protesting in the court is forbidden, despite other laws guaranteeing the right to peaceful protest, so it wasn’t very surprising they were arrested, experts said. But the mistreatment they say they encountered in more than 30 hours of detention may violate constitutional and international rights.

Abortion activists stand in front of the US supreme court in Washington DC, in July 2022.
Abortion activists stand in front of the US supreme court in Washington DC in July 2022. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The women were transferred a total of four times, almost always in dark, tightly packed transport vehicles that reached temperatures up to about 100F (38C), they said. Up to five people sat shoulder to shoulder on each bench, with their knees almost touching the wall in front of them. Bars, like on a rollercoaster ride, settled over their laps and under their chins.

“They seemed to be designed with maximum cruelty in mind,” Paterson said.

Once inside the DC jail, the women say they encountered blood- and feces-splattered cells that resembled dog kennels – but “you wouldn’t keep a dog there”, Baker said. “It was the most inhumane place I’d ever been.”

Two of the women were put together in a cell measuring about four by six feet, including the metal bed frame and toilet. The beds had no mattresses, and a bright overhead light remained on all night, making sleep impossible. Their legs are still streaked with dark bruises from sitting on the two-inch metal lip on the side of the bed. Temperatures hovered around 90F (32C) and there was little water or food. Their repeated requests to contact lawyers went unanswered, they said.

It was “surreal – just torture, really”, Paterson said, calling it a night of “hell”.

Baker has a mobility disability, but she says her cane and reading glasses were taken from her. For hours, she was denied medical care for a fall she suffered while in police custody and for unusually high blood pressure and swollen limbs. She tried lying on the bed frame with her orthopedic shoe as a pillow, but she was in intense pain. “I was just hurting everywhere,” she said. She spent much of the night perched on the toilet because there was nowhere else to sit.

At one point, in the federal jail before their arraignment, all three women – including Baker with her cane – were put in ankle, waist and wrist manacles.

The protesters were “appalled over the jailing conditions we and all the other arrested persons were subjected to”, Enfield said.

“It was just survival mode in there,” Paterson said. “It’s not only how they were treating us, but no human beings should be treated that way.”

Pregnancy is increasingly criminalized in the US, and as abortion rights are rolled back, more patients, providers and supporters may face conditions like these. The protesters’ experiences underscore how access to healthcare, and discussions around it, is increasingly a criminal justice issue.

Peaceful protesters often do not need to be detained at all after their arrests, said Brenda V Smith, professor at the American University Washington College of Law.

If they aren’t violent and don’t pose a risk of not attending their arraignment or trial, they may be released, which frequently happens to peaceful protesters. “They could have been arraigned quickly, processed and then released,” Smith said.

The women said they were released from the courthouse with no bail after their arraignment, and they were not convicted or even arraigned when they were held.

Emily Paterson’s bruised legs from sitting on the two-inch metal lip on the side of the bed frame of a cell measuring about four by six feet.
Emily Paterson’s bruised legs from sitting on the two-inch metal lip on the side of the bed frame of a cell measuring about four by six feet. Photograph: Courtesy of Emily Paterson

“There’s a requirement for humane treatment everywhere, but clearly for people who are pre-trial, where there’s been no convictions, there’s a greater expectation of safe and humane conditions,” Smith said.

All detainees in the US have the right to safe and humane treatment under the US constitution and international human rights laws.

“You have a right to due process of law, which means that you have to be arraigned in a timely fashion, that you have to be treated well, that you should not be punished,” Smith said. “You deserve to be treated with humanity and dignity.”

Authorities are required to hold detainees in humane conditions, to provide physical and mental health care, and to take into consideration of certain vulnerabilities, including age, disability and sexuality, when deciding whether and how to hold someone who has been arrested.

But these requirements frequently diverge from reality. Correctional facilities in DC, as in many places throughout the country, have a long history of alleged human rights abuses and lawsuits with accounts of poor sanitation, unsafe medical conditions, discrimination and physical and sexual violence. A US judge found that the jail violated the rights of one January 6 insurgent, who was arrested for assaulting police and civil disorder.

“The DC jail has been in litigation over something for almost its entire existence,” Smith said.

The US has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with about 2 million people – 1/166th of its population – living behind bars. And there are dramatic disparities by race. Young Black men, for instance, are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. Immigration detention centers have also been accused of numerous violations. And as reproductive healthcare is made illegal in many states, facilities could see an influx of detainees over pregnancy-related charges.

“Prisons, jails and juvenile facilities should be a place of last resort,” Smith said. “That shouldn’t be the first place that people go.”

Leaders should also work to “remedy the conditions that bring people into contact with the criminal justice system”, she said, including racism, inequality and human rights violations like the ones the protesters were highlighting.

“I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve never been arrested in my entire life,” Paterson said. But “women got the right to vote because of similar kinds of protests – peaceful non-violence – and Jim Crow ended because of peaceful non-violent protest … We have a responsibility; nothing will change if we don’t use our power.”

When Baker was 19, she and her boyfriend drove from Indiana to New York to access abortion care – and then Baker began organizing cross-country trips for other people who needed care over the next two years, until the Roe v Wade decision.

“Bodily autonomy has been very important in my life and the lives of many of my friends,” she said. She fears that lawmakers are “going to go right down the list of everything that we worked so hard for”, eliminating civil and human rights established for decades.

Soon after returning to Tucson, the great-grandmother was busy again, despite her bruises, filling up her minivan with voters to take to the polls on election day.


Melody Schreiber

The GuardianTramp

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