A Nebraska corrections official resigned in protest this week after his superiors tried to block a recently admitted inmate from getting an abortion, highlighting tensions over health-care access for female prisoners at a time when women represent the fastest-growing part of the incarcerated population.
“Your ill-thought decision has violated the special trust that the public has placed in our organization and has brought shame to the very notion of public service,” Thomas wrote in the letter, which was shared with The Washington Post and first reported by the Omaha World-Herald.
“I can no longer in good faith or [conscience] remain a member of this organization,” Thomas added, “as it is evident that our values, ethics and commitment to both the Constitution and the rule of law are different and presently irreconcilable.”
Shortly after Thomas resigned, a federal judge issued an emergency order requiring corrections officials to transport the inmate to a nearby Planned Parenthood for the abortion. The woman’s attorneys told The Post on Wednesday that she had “received the abortion care she was previously denied.”
A representative from the department of corrections didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case, and Thomas’s resignation, underscore the challenges female inmates face in accessing abortion and other health services as the number of women in U.S. jails and prisons climbs to record levels. Inmates have a constitutional right to health care, but a patchwork of state and local laws often leaves key decisions about terminating a pregnancy in the hands of corrections officials.
Data on pregnancy and abortions in the prison system is scant. But a 2019 survey of 22 state prisons and all federal prisons by Johns Hopkins Medicine found that almost 1,400 pregnant women were locked up over a period of 12 months from 2016 to 2017. Of those, 11 pregnancies ended in abortion, according to the report.
The Nebraska inmate, a 22-year-old identified in court documents as Jane Roe, started serving a 26-month sentence at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women outside Lincoln, Neb., on Feb. 18. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on her behalf earlier this month after she said corrections officials rejected her requests to terminate her pregnancy before the state’s ban on most abortions at 22 weeks.
The lawsuit says the woman made multiple requests for the abortion in late March, only to be turned down. In a meeting with the prison warden on April 2, she was told she couldn’t get the care she needed because there was a 21-day freeze on money going into prisoners’ accounts, according to the complaint. She later received a written denial from prison officials.
By the second week of April, the woman was 15 weeks pregnant and risked missing the cutoff for abortions at the local Planned Parenthood, where she’d already arranged payment for the procedure, according to the complaint. Further complicating the situation, the complaint said, she had to perform state-mandated counseling 24 hours before the procedure.
Her attorneys sent prison leaders a demand letter, then filed court papers alleging violations of her constitutional right under the 14th Amendment to terminate her pregnancy. The lawsuit named Scott Frakes, the corrections department director, as a defendant.
“Although abortion is very safe, each week of delay increases the risks associated with the procedure,” the lawsuit read. “And if she is delayed too long, she will be forced to carry her pregnancy to term against her will.”
On Monday, after the lawsuit was filed, prison officials agreed to let her proceed with the abortion.
In most cases when prisoners are denied an abortion, a demand letter from lawyers is often enough to convince corrections officials to relent, said Scout Richters, who represented the inmate in the Nebraska lawsuit. She said she didn’t know why Nebraska officials refused her client’s requests.
“I think that it’s pretty rare that this type of case comes to a lawsuit,” Richters told The Post.
“It’s telling that we filed the lawsuit and hours later they agreed to allow her to access care after weeks of blocking her,” she added. “In our case our client did everything right.”
Thomas, the disability coordinator, didn’t know the inmate but had heard chatter around his office about the litigation, he said. When he read the ACLU’s lawsuit online, he said, he was appalled.
“My agency was essentially choosing not to follow the law,” he told The Post in an interview. “That was very problematic to me.”
Thomas, 27, had been in his job since 2019, making sure inmates had access to devices, services and programs that they needed while incarcerated. He’d taken the job to help put himself through graduate school at Bellevue University, where he was getting his master’s in public administration. Before that, he’d spent six years in the U.S. Air Force, followed by a stint at the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, he said.
Conflicted about whether to take a public stand against his bosses and walk out on a job he liked, Thomas phoned a friend and former supervisor he worked with at the State Department. After talking through the pros and cons, he said, he decided to quit.
Around 5:30 a.m. Monday, he collected his belongings from his desk, including a pair of diplomas from college and a book called “The Good Country Equation” by a public policy consultant. Then he handed over his keys and letter.
“Change happens one person at a time,” he said. “This was my way of trying to make some semblance of change happen as one person.”