Edmonton Journal with Martha Paynter 26 March 2018
Stephanie Albert knew something was wrong when the baby inside her stopped moving.
Albert, 30, is no stranger to high-risk pregnancies. She has a healthy son and two healthy daughters, but those pregnancies were difficult.
She knew a prolonged drop in fetal movement was a sign to visit the doctor — fast. But in this case, she couldn’t. She was in jail.
Albert filed requests to be seen by medical staff at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre for weeks before she was finally taken outside the facility for an ultrasound, which confirmed the baby had died at about 24 weeks.
“I told them ‘I’m feeling decreased fetal movements in my baby, I’ve had three children before, and this is worrisome to me — very worrisome,’” Albert said in a recent interview. “And nothing.”
She claims inaction on the part of Alberta’s correctional system caused her to develop a serious infection from carrying the stillborn baby for around six weeks.
A spokesman for Alberta Health Services, which provides health care to inmates in provincial correctional facilities, said it could not comment specifically on the case for privacy reasons.
A group that advocates for women’s health in prisons and jails says stories like Albert’s bolster their argument that Canada should stop imprisoning pregnant women.
Albert, who now lives in Hinton, was arrested on April 25, 2017, on charges of failing to comply with court-ordered conditions and possessing a stolen pickup truck. She was housed at the Edmonton Remand Centre for two days before being transferred to the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre.
She was denied bail and was in custody awaiting trial.
A May 9 ultrasound at an outside medical centre confirmed what she had suspected: she was pregnant.
“I was 17 weeks and three days pregnant, and everything was good — heartbeat, everything,” Albert said. She had been feeling “little air bubbles” that marked early fetal movement since the beginning of May, and by the time she was at the jail, her friends on the unit could feel the baby kick.
“When I saw the baby, I was excited,” she said. “I got a picture of the baby, they let me take the ultrasound picture to jail with me.”
Starting around May 17, however, she began to feel a “severe decrease” in fetal movement. She asked to go the medical unit, and was assured an appointment was upcoming. By the end of the month, the drop in movement was accompanied by “searing pains,” she said.
Albert saw a doctor at the facility a few days after the drop in fetal movement, but was told she was experiencing “growing pains from the baby” and given Tylenol without an examination.
Still alarmed, Albert continued to make requests. On June 22, she was taken to the jail’s medical clinic. This time, staff used a Doppler machine, but were unable to locate the baby’s heartbeat. She said staff at the clinic told her there was an issue with the equipment.
“I was like ‘I know there’s something wrong,’” Albert said. In tears, she was taken back to her unit with assurances she would be taken to a nearby ultrasound clinic the following day.
That appointment confirmed Albert’s baby had died. But instead of being taken to hospital right away, as the ultrasound technician advised, she was sent back to jail. A hospital appointment was made for the following week.
That evening she woke up shivering, in a cold sweat, feeling like she’d “swallowed a flaming ball of fire,” she said. Alarmed, her roommate called a guard, and she was finally taken to Edmonton’s Lois Hole Hospital for Women in the Royal Alexandra Hospital.
Around 5 a.m. on June 24, she was induced. Her amniotic fluid was the colour of black coffee, she said, and the baby boy, roughly five ounces, had been dead long enough that the skin was decomposing.
Few stats on prison pregnancies
Martha Paynter with Women’s Wellness Within, a Halifax-based group that advocates for women’s health in correctional institutions, said there is little data available on pregnant incarcerated women in Canada, particularly in provincial facilities, where turnover is high.
Neither AHS nor Correctional Service Canada keep statistics on how many of its inmates are pregnant, spokespeople said.
But cases similar to Albert’s have emerged in other parts of Canada, said Paynter.
Julie Bilotta, a former inmate at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, recently settled a lawsuit in which she alleged guards and medical staff ignored her cries for help as she gave birth in a segregation cell. The child died a year later from respiratory problems. Another woman incarcerated at the same facility said she was ignored by guards and medical staff while trying to seek help during miscarriage.
Paynter also cited the case of Bianca Mercer, who lost a pregnancy after being incarcerated in Nova Scotia.
“What we see reiterated in these cases, you see first (that) women’s concerns aren’t taken seriously … and then specifically you see inadequate access to very basic health services,” Paynter said.
The solution is to stop incarcerating pregnant women, she said.
“We should not be incarcerating pregnant women, full stop. We should not be incarcerating mothers. We should be addressing the poverty and addiction and mental illness and trauma that lies behind the majority of women’s criminalization.”
Lengthy hospital stay
Albert doesn’t know whether her baby would have survived if she’d received speedier medical treatment, but she believes her life wouldn’t have been put at risk. After giving birth, she was in hospital for another five days on antibiotics to control a severe fever.
“I don’t want this to happen to any other girls,” she said.