Diana Sanchez screamed as she writhed on the small bed inside her cell at the Denver County Jail. Gripping the thin mattress with one hand, she tried to use the other to take off her white cloth pants, only managing to free her left leg. Her face glistened with sweat. She had been in labor for hours, and now her baby was coming.
At 10:44 a.m. on July 31, 2018, in a moment captured on surveillance video, Sanchez gave birth to her son alone in her cell without medical supervision or treatment, despite repeatedly telling the jail’s staff that she was having contractions, according to a federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Colorado on Wednesday. The suit alleges that instead of “ensuring that Ms. Sanchez was able to give birth in a safe and sanitary medical setting,” nurses and deputies “callously made her labor alone for hours,” forcing her to endure a “horrific experience.”
“That pain was indescribable,” Sanchez told KDVR in an interview last year, “and what hurts me more though is the fact that nobody cared.”
The suit, which names the city and county of Denver, Denver Health Medical Center, and six individuals as defendants, comes months after an internal investigation conducted by the Denver Sheriff Department cleared its deputies of wrongdoing — a result that left Sanchez’s attorney Mari Newman “profoundly disappointed.”
“That’s just emblematic of how broken the system really is,” Newman told The Washington Post. “They claim to have done a review and their conclusion is that nothing was wrong with the fact that a woman was never taken to the hospital and ended up giving birth in a dirty, cold, hard jail cell. It’s really unfathomable.”
A spokeswoman with the sheriff department told KDVR on Wednesday that last year’s investigation concluded deputies “took the appropriate actions under the circumstances and followed the relevant policies and procedures.” But, she added, “Policy has since been clarified that when an inmate is in labor, an emergency ambulance will be called.” Denver Health, which provides medical services at the jail, did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.
On July 14, 2018, Sanchez, who was already more than eight months pregnant, was booked into the Denver County Jail on charges related to identity theft, KDVR reported. According to the lawsuit, medical personnel made note of her condition and were aware that her due date was just over three weeks away.
Then, around 5 a.m. on July 31, Sanchez had a message for the deputy who was delivering her breakfast: She was having contractions.
Sanchez would go on to tell deputies and nurses about her contractions “at least eight times that morning,” but medical care wasn’t provided and an ambulance to the hospital never arrived, the complaint alleged. Instead, for the next four to five hours, Sanchez “labored alone in her cell,” a “long and painful” process that was captured in its entirety on surveillance video that the jail’s staff were responsible for monitoring, the suit said.
“It’s profoundly difficult to watch a person who is in so much pain, so much fear and at such medical risk, and yet nobody is doing anything about it,” Newman said.
Shortly before 10 a.m., Sanchez’s labor pains got worse, the lawsuit said. She told a deputy that her water had broken and she was experiencing abdominal pains, symptoms that indicated she was going to deliver her baby soon, according to the complaint.
But when the deputy relayed the information to a nurse, the nurse only requested for a van to take Sanchez to the hospital, the suit said. Jail officials signed off despite knowing that the van wouldn’t take her to the hospital until all new detainees had been booked, a process that could take “multiple hours,” the suit alleged.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a person who’s been in labor for hours and who’s water has broken is going to have a baby,” Newman said. “The baby’s not going to wait for book-ins. The baby’s coming one way or the other.”
As Sanchez waited, Newman said the mother was given an absorbent pad to lie on. In the surveillance video, Sanchez can be seen unfolding the square sheet and placing it on her bed.
“You might as well give her a Band-Aid and pretend that that’s going to keep the baby from coming,” Newman said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Less than an hour after her water broke, Sanchez started shouting for help, the complaint said. A deputy arrived to Sanchez’s cell to find that the pad was soaked through and she was “clearly in excruciating pain.” When a nurse was informed of the situation, he allegedly responded that Sanchez was already scheduled to go to the hospital, so she didn’t need medical care, the suit said.
By 10:42 a.m., video of the cell showed Sanchez with her pants around her knees, her face distorted in a grimace. Soon, she is frantically taking off her pants and underwear. The door of her cell opens, but no one comes in to help.
Sanchez’s mouth is wide open in a scream. Within seconds, a small baby tumbles out onto the bed and only then does a man wearing surgical gloves enter the cell. He appears to examine the infant, gently patting the baby’s back a few times. At least two people in uniforms can be seen.
The Denver Fire Department took another 15 minutes to arrive at the cell, the lawsuit said. Sanchez and her baby weren’t transported to the hospital until around 11:15 a.m. – more than 30 minutes after she had given birth, the suit alleged.
“They put my son’s life at risk,” Sanchez told KDVR in August 2018. “When I got to the hospital, they said that I could have bled to death.”
With the lawsuit, Newman said she hopes to “achieve some measure of accountability and to force wrongdoers to change their behavior.” The suit mentions several past incidents in which inmates under the supervision of the city and county of Denver and Denver Health Medical Center personnel allegedly did not receive adequate care. One case, which was settled about 10 years ago, resulted in an agreement that jail staff are required to report medical emergencies up the chain of command and if no action is taken, to call 911 themselves, Newman said. Had that commitment been followed, Sanchez’s experience may have been avoided, she said.
“I would like to think that institutions and people will do the right thing for their own sake, but apparently that’s not the case,” she said.