Giving Birth Alone in Jail

In July 2021, Jazmin Valentine was being held in solitary confinement in a Hagerstown, MD jail when she went into labor. Despite her screams and pleas for help, guards and other jail staff ignored her, and she was forced to give birth on a cold, dirty floor in a cell without blankets or sheets. When a deputy discovered her holding her daughter in the cell just after birth, the staff finally called an ambulance to take them to the hospital. But by then, the worst had passed. Valentine was forced to endure the labor entirely on her own, in fear of the worst, having been ignored and humiliated by authorities. The conditions of the birth also caused the baby to develop a potentially serious staph infection, although it has since recovered. Valentine is now suing Washington County for violating her rights.

The cruel punishment in this story is extreme, but unfortunately it is not unusual. In fact, there have been multiple instances of prisoners being forced to give birth alone in cells reported in just the last few years. The blatant disregard for the humanity of the prisoners in these stories is something that the current carceral system actively encourages. The enforcers of this system cannot recognize the humanity of and empathize with the people who they subject to such cruelties because to do so would undermine the system itself. Imprisonment at its core is harsh and brutal, so it’s no shock that those who carry out such punishment cannot see those they imprison as people, much less equals.

But this cruelty that occurs so often is not the full extent of the injustice of this system. The system itself is unjust because it is designed not for bringing justice to wrongdoers and protecting the innocent, but for creating an underclass of so-called “criminals,” disproportionately people of color, who are restricted from fully participating in society and whose status serves as a warning to those who might be inclined to stray outside the bounds of what is acceptable under capitalism.

Jazmin Valentine’s experience and others like it also reveal the hypocrisy of those in control. How can the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade so that abortions can be banned in the name of “protecting unborn babies” while sitting at the top of a so-called justice system that allows such events to happen over and over? If imprisoning people is about protecting the innocent, why was no care taken to protect Valentine’s baby by ensuring it could be born in safe and comfortable conditions instead of a dirty jail cell? The justifications given for the various mechanisms of control under which we live are lies meant to conceal the brutality inherent in the system.

When we witness events like those of this story, we cannot assume them to be rare occurrences that are only the fault of a few bad people, nor can we view them as inevitable. The specific horrifying experience that Jazmin Valentine was forced to endure is one of many that persist under capitalism. We must fight to be treated even just decently in the face of such conditions.