One ‘hell’ night: Abortion activists on their ‘inhumane’ detention in DC | Abortion

Three women who peacefully protested abortion restrictions outside the US Supreme Court were abused and held in “inhumane” conditions after their arrest, they say.

Their experience shows troubling treatment in a landscape where pregnant women, 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 player and a therapeutic massage therapist – arrived at the Supreme Court before sunrise, waiting more than four hours to get tickets to attend an open hearing at the public on November 2.

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

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

Protesting outside the court is banned, despite other laws guaranteeing the right to peaceful protest, so it was hardly surprising that they were arrested, experts said. But the mistreatment they say they endured in more than 30 hours of detention may violate constitutional and international rights.

Abortion activists outside the United States Supreme Court in Washington DC in July 2022. Photography: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The women were moved a total of four times, almost always in dark, tight transport vehicles that reached temperatures of up to around 100F (38C), they said. Up to five people sat side by side on each bench, their knees almost touching the wall in front of them. Bars, like on a roller coaster, settled on their knees and under their chins.

“They looked like they were designed with maximum cruelty in mind,” Paterson said.

Once inside the DC jail, the women say they encountered cells splattered with blood and feces that looked like kennels — but “you wouldn’t keep a dog there,” Baker said. “It was the most inhuman place I’ve been to.”

Two of the women were herded into 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 was left 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 90 F (32 C) 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 from hell.”

Baker has a motor disability, but she says her cane and reading glasses were taken away from her. For hours she was denied medical treatment for a fall she suffered while in police custody and for abnormally high blood pressure and swollen limbs. She tried to lie on the bed frame with her orthopedic shoe as a pillow, but she was in severe pain. “I just hurt all over,” she said. She spent much of the night perched on the toilet as there was nowhere to sit.

At one point in federal prison before their arraignment, the three women — including Baker with his cane — were handcuffed at the ankles, waist and wrists.

The protesters were “appalled by the conditions of imprisonment to which we and all other arrestees were subjected”, Enfield said.

“It was just a survival mode in there,” Paterson said. “It’s not just the way they treated us, but no human being should be treated that way.”

Pregnancy is increasingly criminalized in the United States, and as abortion rights are rolled back, more patients, providers, and supporters may experience such conditions. The protesters’ experiences underscore how access to and discussion of health care is increasingly a criminal justice issue.

Peaceful protesters often don’t need to be detained at all after arrest, said American University Washington College of Law professor Brenda V Smith.

If they are not violent and do not present the risk of not attending their arraignment or trial, they can be released, which frequently happens to peaceful protesters. “They could have been picked up quickly, dealt with and then released,” Smith said.

The women said they were released from the courthouse without bond after their arraignment and were not convicted or even charged while in custody.

Emily Paterson's bruised legs while sitting on the two inch metal ledge on the side of the bed frame of a cell measuring about four by six feet.
Emily Paterson’s bruised legs while sitting on the two inch metal ledge on the side of the bed frame of a cell measuring about four by six feet. Photo: Courtesy of Emily Paterson

“There is a demand for humane treatment everywhere, but it is clear that for people who are in pre-trial detention, where there has been no conviction, there is a greater expectation of safe and humane conditions,” Smith said.

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

“You have a right to due process, which means you should be brought to justice in a timely manner, you should be treated well, 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, provide physical and mental health care and take into consideration certain vulnerabilities, including age, disability and sexuality, when deciding whether and how to detain a prisoner. arrested person.

But these requirements often diverge from reality. DC’s correctional facilities, like many places across the country, have a long history of alleged human rights abuses and lawsuits alleging poor sanitation, dangerous medical conditions, discrimination and violence. physical and sexual. A U.S. judge found the jail violated the rights of a Jan. 6 insurgent, who was arrested for assaulting police and civil disorder.

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

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with around 2 million people – 1/166th of its population – living behind bars. And there are dramatic disparities by race. Young black men, for example, are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. Migrant detention centers have also been accused of numerous violations. And as reproductive health care is made illegal in many states, facilities could see an influx of inmates on pregnancy-related charges.

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

Leaders should also work to “address the conditions that bring people into contact with the criminal justice system”, she said, including racism, inequality and human rights abuses like those that protesters pointed out.

“I have never done anything like this. I’ve never been arrested in my entire life,” Paterson said. But “women won the right to vote through similar protests – peaceful nonviolence – and Jim Crow ended because of peaceful nonviolent 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 – then Baker began organizing trips across the country for others who had needed care over the next two years, until the Roe v Wade decision.

“Body autonomy has been very important in my life and in the lives of many of my friends,” she said. She fears lawmakers “want to run through the list of everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve”, eliminating civil and human rights that have been established for decades.

Shortly after returning to Tucson, the great-grandmother was once again busy, despite her bruises, filling her van with voters to take to the polls on Election Day.

Luz W. German