by Max Brantley
Over a stretch of 17 months at the largest jail in Arkansas, three inmates miscarried and one gave birth to a full-term baby boy in a toilet. The newborn soon died, still attached to his umbilical cord. He was wrapped in a medical waste bag.
If the women had not sued the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility in Little Rock, few people in the outside world would have known about the deaths. There is no national tally of miscarriages and other pregnancy outcomes in jails and prisons. Few facilities track them at all. But what makes this jail stand out is not just the grim tally of fetal deaths. It is the county’s response: A new virtual ob-gyn clinic that aims to prevent miscarriages and stillbirths in the future.
“Hiding from one screwup doesn’t prevent the next one,” said Maj. Matthew Briggs, second-in-command of the 1,530-bed facility that houses about 200 women on a typical day. By Christmas, the jail’s medical facility is expected to have interactive video equipment, a fetal heart rate monitor and an ultrasound machine. The county is close to signing an estimated $150,000 annual contract with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to provide nurses who specialize in high-risk pregnancies to perform weekly prenatal exams on inmates. Doctors will examine the women remotely from their offices three miles away through video chats, digital scopes and the heart-rate monitor.
“A patient is a patient. It is just as important to me whether it is my daughter-in-law, who is pregnant now, or whether it’s a prisoner who is a patient,” said Tina Benton, oversight director for the university’s Center for Distance Health. “I am going to take care of them the same way.”