Woman jailed because she is pregnant and HIV-positive

This is so deeply troubling:

A woman from the African nation of Cameroon could give birth in a federal prison because she is HIV-positive.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock last month sentenced Quinta Layin Tuleh, 28, to 238 days in federal prison for having fake documents. Woodcock said the sentence would ensure that Tuleh’s baby, due Aug. 29, has a good chance of being born free of the AIDS virus.

Both the federal prosecutor and the defense attorney urged the judge to sentence Tuleh to 114 days, or time served, according to a transcript of the sentencing hearing. Woodcock instead ignored the federal sentencing guidelines and calculated her sentence to coincide with her due date.

Woodcock told Tuleh at her sentencing on May 14 in U.S. District Court that he was not imposing the longer prison term to punish her further but to protect her unborn child. He said that the defendant was more likely to receive medical treatment and follow a drug regimen in federal prison than out on her own or in the custody of immigration officials. The judge also said that his decision was based entirely on her HIV status. If Tuleh were pregnant but not infected with the AIDS virus, he would have sentenced her to time served.

Make no mistake: Prison is a punishment, not a source of health care. There is no indication that Tuleh planned to forgo health care or endanger her fetus (and even if there was, she shouldn’t be jailed, but this is particularly egregious because her attorneys provided the judge with information on the medical care she was seeking). She remains in jail because she’s assumed to be untrustworthy, and because unsubstantiated threats to the health of her fetus are deemed more important than her basic right to liberty.

Of course Tuleh should obtain pre-natal care. Of course she should get the necessary care to prevent HIV transmission to her chid. But that isn’t what this case is about. This case is about a person being incarcerated because of her HIV status and her status as a pregnant woman. It’s about controlling a woman’s body and taking away her most basic liberties under the guise of protecting an innocent

Being pregnant is not a crime. Being HIV-positive is not a crime. Neither are a statuses which should compromise one’s fundamental rights and liberties. But today, Quinta Layin Tuleh is sitting in jail because she happens to be both. It’s appalling.

Thanks, Dad, for the link.

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Jill has been blogging for Feministe since 2005.
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26 Responses

  1. kaninchen
    kaninchen June 3, 2009 at 3:45 pm |

    Unfortunately we do the same things here (here being the U.S.) with women who go looking for health care and test positive for illegal drugs. Like we needed reminding that this really is about controlling women, controlling women’s reproduction, controlling women’s sexuality. It just usually isn’t this obscenely blatant.

  2. AA
    AA June 3, 2009 at 4:27 pm |

    Wow. Talk about an “activist” judge.

  3. Cara
    Cara June 3, 2009 at 6:13 pm |

    Kaninchen — this is in the U.S. The woman is from Cameroon, but she’s living in the States. It was U.S. District Judge handing down the sentence.

  4. Alison
    Alison June 3, 2009 at 6:58 pm |

    Wow – that’s horrible. And this judge seems to be assuming that Tuleh will receive good medical care in prison, which sadly is often not the case. I’ve read horror stories about what pregnant inmates have gone through…

    And jeez – the fact that the judge comes right out and says it’s based entirely on her HIV status is just…wow. How can that possibly be legal?

  5. tinfoil hattie
    tinfoil hattie June 3, 2009 at 7:12 pm |

    Wow. Is it not at all possible that Tuleh became HIV-positive from her partner? My god. Even if she got it from doing drugs, and the judge was serious about “helping” her, would not a residential treatment program at a really good rehab center serve her much better?

    But that wouldn’t be enough punishment and shame, would it.

  6. Katie
    Katie June 3, 2009 at 7:59 pm |

    HOLY SHIT. This is so incredibly upsetting. Are there any petitions afoot yet?

  7. piny
    piny June 3, 2009 at 8:14 pm |

    I know that pregnancy and HIV have also been exceptions to this broad rule, but it’s also not illegal to refuse medical treatment, even lifesaving treatment. This woman’s prenatal and perinatal decisions are nobody’s business but hers.

  8. evil_fizz
    evil_fizz June 3, 2009 at 8:43 pm |

    He does know that deliveries for seropositive women are considered to be medically complicated and require careful management? And that a prison is quite possibly the worst place for someone who needs good medical care?

    I didn’t think so.

  9. RD
    RD June 3, 2009 at 11:16 pm |

    Disgusting. And horrible.

    I’m sort of wondering where all the pro-criminalization of HIV transmission folks are on this one tho, would have thought y’all would be ecstatic.

  10. Natalia Antonova
    Natalia Antonova June 4, 2009 at 12:42 am | *

    Not surprised. Along with all the arbitrary immigration BS & her being from Cameroon (everyone knows that people from THAT continent are scary and must be locked up whenever possible), looks like he wanted to make an example of her as some sort of violent criminal who wants to harm her baby (where the evidence of that is, I don’t know, probably in his feverish mind). And prison healthcare? Is he kidding?

  11. RD
    RD June 4, 2009 at 1:04 am |

    You especially.

  12. Natalia Antonova
    Natalia Antonova June 4, 2009 at 1:26 am | *

    I’m not going to rise to the bait, RD. I think you were wrong to argue that because HIV is particularly manageable in places such as NYC, transmission in the developed world is therefore an isolated issue. I know you’re aware that people without a shiny American or EU passport, the ones who have sex for money with everyone whose citizenship makes them a de facto human being, are the ones who face the worst kind of danger from HIV. HIV doesn’t abide by any borders and affects all of us – but some live where they can get decent healthcare, while those that they infect get to waste away after being cast out from their homes. So please don’t assume I’m “ecstatic” about anything. You want to pick up an old argument? You’re welcome to come over to my blog.

  13. RD
    RD June 4, 2009 at 1:35 am |

    That wasn’t even CLOSE to what my argument was. I was correcting people’s misconceptions about HIV, they were obnoxious, and not related to the main argument about whether HIV transmission should be criminalized.

    And yeah, cuz I want SO much to give you blog traffic.

  14. RD
    RD June 4, 2009 at 1:37 am |

    BTW, you are the one who wants them, while they are wasting away after getting kicked out of their homes, to go to fucking PRISON for it.

  15. Natalia Antonova
    Natalia Antonova June 4, 2009 at 1:52 am | *

    Blog traffic? I don’t want to de-rail this thread with an argument from last month. And yes, of course, I think Benaissa is just like this woman from Cameroon, and in fact I want to just kill the lot of them and eat their hearts like a good Sarmatian should. Fair enough. You got me.

  16. CBrachyrhynchos
    CBrachyrhynchos June 4, 2009 at 8:49 am |

    Wait. The best interests of this woman’s health involves putting her into a criminal justice system where inmates have a life expectancy almost 15 years less than the general population, a system where hepatitis, HIV, and diabetes are endemic?

  17. RD
    RD June 4, 2009 at 9:42 am |

    Huh. Funny. Guess criminalizing exposure vs. transmission is a pretty big distinction to you, though there was some talk of that on the other thread too, “reckless endangerment” and all that bull crap. Don’t worry though, no intention here to engage with Natalia again.

  18. Dianne
    Dianne June 4, 2009 at 9:43 am |

    He said that the defendant was more likely to receive medical treatment and follow a drug regimen in federal prison than out on her own or in the custody of immigration officials.

    This sentence almost makes me want to give the judge the benefit of the doubt. Suppose he knew that if she were released it would be virtually certain that she would NOT be at liberty but rather taken into custody by immigration officials immediately. Immigrants in detention face worse conditions and worse medical care than inmates in prisons. If he was really trying to spare her that fate, I can see his point. I’m not saying that that’s what happened, but it is a consideration.

    And yes, I agree that saying that people are better off in prison than in custody of the INS is horrible. But it’s true.

  19. malathion
    malathion June 4, 2009 at 10:01 am |

    I assume she’s going to be remanded to immigration detention right after her sentence ends? Sadly, the immigration detention health care system is so astoundingly bad that she might actually get better care in federal prison. That being said, the correct answer here was for the judge to release her and somehow arrange for a stay on her deportation/detention (if possible) instead of this crazy ruling. Here’s more info on health care in immigration detention: http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/03/17/us-immigration-detention-neglects-health

  20. malathion
    malathion June 4, 2009 at 10:20 am |

    Sorry, I should have rtfa (read the fucking article). It looks like she wasn’t immediately going to be sent to immigration detention after all. It seems like the judge is using some kind of crazy civil commitment standard instead to argue that she’s posing an imminent danger to others (the fetus). I am very much looking forward to him being severely slapped down by the 1st cir. for this obvious due process violation.

  21. kaninchen
    kaninchen June 4, 2009 at 12:35 pm |

    I suck at the reading comprehension. Apologies.

  22. Dianne
    Dianne June 4, 2009 at 12:57 pm |

    Um, as Malathion said. RTFA first. Relevant quote from article: “Erickson had arranged for her to stay in Portland and receive care at the Frannie Peabody Center, which provides services for HIV-positive residents, while her immigration case proceeded. ” So Ms. Tuleh had care arranged outside of prison and was at no risk of immediate deportation. Judge is just being a prejudiced ass.

  23. Comrade PhysioProf
    Comrade PhysioProf June 4, 2009 at 6:56 pm |

    According to the article, it is the prosecutor who is appealing the sentence. You don’t often (ever?) hear of a prosecutor appealing to seek a lighter sentence. I bet this judge is such a sick fuck, that even prosecutors are squicked out by him.

  24. Natalia
    Natalia June 5, 2009 at 8:11 am |

    I do, however, owe you an apology, RD. I get so wicked angry and resentful whenever transmission is brought up in a context such as NYC, that I don’t stop to think about context or the actual lives of people being affected. Because of family circumstances, I can be as much of a jerk about this issue as the next person. And that’s why I invited you to my blog.

    Peace.

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