Jennifer Jawson had been in jail for more than a week when she learned her unborn baby’s heart wasn’t beating.
It was December in Milwaukee, and Jawson had been arrested on a suspected probation violation and jailed while the court sorted things out.
Eight months and three weeks into her pregnancy, she faced the very real possibility of giving birth to her baby in jail, according to court documents. So the medical staff worked out a routine: Every day they’d connect her to a fetal monitor and listen for her baby’s heartbeat.
All was well Dec. 2, a day after she was booked into the Milwaukee Criminal Justice Center. Medical staff wrote that the baby had “strong fetal heart tones.” But things went downhill from there, according to a claim against the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, a precursor to an $8.5 million lawsuit. The 35-year-old says jail officials didn’t give her the proper medication during her week in jail.
On Dec. 4, she complained that she was experiencing “severe cramping and contractions,” the court documents say. It was the beginning of a new pattern, her claim says: Every day she would complain of stomach pains, and every day her jailers would ignore her.
Worse, according to the court documents, they wouldn’t allow Jawson to have her daily treatments of methadone, and instead of taking her to a hospital, they prescribed her Tylenol 3, which contains codeine. Court documents say it “is not a common medication prescribed to pregnant women because it is extremely dangerous to the baby. The dangers are worse for women in the final stages of pregnancy.”
Methadone is considered safe for pregnant women, but studies have linked the use of codeine and other opioids to a higher incidence of birth defects, although most say more research is needed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For Jawson, the pattern continued for more than a week — complaints, Tylenol 3, fetal monitoring — until Dec. 9, when medical staff connected her to the monitor but couldn’t detect any signs that the baby was alive.
Jail officials decided she needed to go to the hospital. Her lawsuit says that while she lay shackled to a gurney in the ambulance inside the jail’s garage, “a [jail] sergeant spontaneously came down to the ambulance and informed [Jawson] that she was being released from custody.” She was unshackled and driven to Sinai Medical Center.
Doctors there couldn’t detect the baby’s heartbeat either.
“Doctors determined that [Jawson’s] baby was deceased inside of [her] womb,” her claim says. A day later, doctors induced Jawson’s labor and she “was forced to give birth to a dead baby, who was healthy and viable prior to [Jawson] entering” jail.
“There are so many things they could have done,” Jawson’s attorney, Jason Jankowski, told The Washington Post. “They could have taken her for methadone. They could have taken her back to the hospital when she had cramping. They didn’t take her to the hospital until they couldn’t find the fetal heartbeat.”
Jawson’s claim against Milwaukee County and the jail also names Sheriff David Clarke Jr., the Milwaukee County inspectors and other officers responsible for Jawson’s care.
The court documents accuse the sheriff’s office of being “deliberately indifferent to the health, welfare and life of … Jawson and her deceased baby.”
Clarke defended his agency’s actions Wednesday on the Dan O’Donnell show on Milwaukee radio station WISN, calling the story “a fake news jihad that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has against me and it’s been going on for quite some time.”
“A probation officer gave [Jawson] a drug test and she failed it,” he said. “And the drug they detected was cocaine … So she’s using drugs while pregnant.”
He also said the medical care at the jail is contracted by Milwaukee County, not his office.
“I’m not a doctor. … The corrections officers or anybody else don’t say, ‘Doctor, why don’t you try this?’ I’ve made it clear: I will fire people if they get between a doctor and that patient.”
Clarke hasn’t directly addressed other deaths at the jail, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which said he “has been generally dismissive of criticism of his leadership, chalking it up to political retribution for his support of President Donald Trump.”
Clarke is an ardent supporter of Trump, and he was mentioned as a potential pick for the Department of Homeland Security, according to The Post’s Aaron Blake.
The jail has been under scrutiny after four people died there last year, including a man who died of dehydration while locked in his cell and a newborn whose mother gave birth in a cell while no staff members appeared to notice, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The woman, Shade Swayzer, told corrections officers her water broke around midnight during her stint in jail in July, according to the Journal Sentinel. She gave birth about 4 a.m. but didn’t receive medical attention until about 6 a.m.
The company that handles medical care at the jail said Swayzer’s baby was stillborn, but the woman claims her baby was “born alive, cried profusely and was breast-fed.”
Jankowski is representing Swayzer, too. Their claim seeks $8.5 million in damages.
In an interview with the Guardian, Clarke called the controversy surrounding the deaths at his jail a “manufactured issue. This is a disguised political attack. Four deaths in a jail, yeah, OK, there were four deaths in a jail, not connected in any way. People die in hospitals, people die in nursing homes, people die — doesn’t mean we had anything to with it.”