DENVER – A woman is suing the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office, the county sheriff and several deputies in federal court over claims she was forced to give birth without medical attention on a cold cell floor despite her pleas for help.
Attorneys for Irene Pruitt, 31, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Colorado in Denver. The defendants named in the lawsuit include the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Robert Jackson and seven Alamosa County sheriff’s deputies.
Pruitt’s attorneys, Denver-based Adam Frank and Faisal Salahuddin, are seeking compensatory and punitive damages on multiple claims that Pruitt’s 14th Amendment rights were violated.
“When the story first kind of came across my desk, I kept thinking, ‘This can’t be right. This can’t be what happened. This can’t be how they treat people in that jail in Alamosa County.’ But it is,” Frank told Denver7 in an interview Thursday.
But Jackson disputed the claims made in the lawsuit, telling Denver7 in an interview Thursday that “the charges are not valid, in my opinion.”
Pruitt was arrested on drug possession charges on Nov. 4, 2016 while she was eight months pregnant. According to the lawsuit, Pruitt had been using opiates prior to her arrest and she was taken to the San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center before she was released to the county jail. She had been jailed at the facility before, the sheriff’s office confirmed to Denver7.
The suit says that a doctor gave Pruitt and the deputies explicit instructions upon releasing her to jail: “Return here or go to the nearest Emergency Department right away if you have: Pain or cramping in the abdomen (belly) or pelvis, vaginal bleeding, nausea / vomiting, dizziness / lightheadedness or passing out.”
An outside registered nurse was also brought to the county jail once Pruitt started going through withdrawals shortly after she arrived, the lawsuit claims. According to the suit, the nurse said Pruitt was at risk of going into preterm labor because of her withdrawals and advised jail deputies to give her emergency care if she went into labor.
“The defendants in these types of cases always claim, ‘Oh, we didn’t know. We never could have known,’” Frank told Denver7. “The nurse they brought in to consult told them this was going to happen. They didn’t care; they ignored it and then, of course, that’s exactly what happened.”
The lawsuit says that as Pruitt’s withdrawal symptoms worsened, she began to vomit, sweat and soil herself. Her cell didn’t have a toilet or running water – just a grate in the floor, according to the suit. The suit claims that the deputies allowed Pruitt to shower briefly, but that during the shower, one deputy told Pruitt: “If you don’t hurry up, I’m gonna come in and tase you.”
It says she went into pre-term labor on Nov. 5, and later that day went into full labor.
The lawsuit says that Pruitt told jail guards several times that she was in labor and needed to go to the hospital but that the guards ignored her requests.
But Jackson told Denver7 that Pruitt only gave deputies notice that she was in labor shortly before the baby came – disputing the claims made in the lawsuit – and said the deputies actually helped Pruitt and her baby. He also said that the claims she cried for help repeatedly were “false.”
Eventually, early on Nov. 6, the suit claims, one of the guards called an ambulance. But the suit claims that one of the guards told Pruitt that “if she wasn’t actually in labor, he would bring her back to the jail and file additional charges against her for false reporting.”
But it says that before the ambulance arrived that Pruitt gave birth to a baby girl on her cell floor.
The lawsuit claims that Jackson and the sheriff’s office had policies in place that don’t provide medical care for inmates going through withdrawals. Among the claims are that Jackson’s policy is to “prioritize minimizing inmate medical expenses over ensuring that inmates receive adequate medical care.”
“While the official policy of the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office is that emergency medical care will be made available to all inmates, the actual custom, policy, and practice of the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office is to deny such care unless an inmate appears to be literally dying,” the suit claims.
In addition to the damages being sought, Pruitt’s attorneys are also seeking other declaratory relief and attorneys’ fees related to the suit if the court rules in her favor.
“We understand that Ms. Pruitt was using opiates while she was pregnant. I mean, there’s no hiding from that – that is party of this narrative,” Frank said. “But that’s unfortunately not an uncommon phenomenon, especially in Alamosa County right now. And the fact that the sheriff’s attitude toward that is, ‘Screw her, let her have the baby on the floor,’ is reprehensible.”