Phoenix New Times, October 20, 2009
The bleeding kept her up all night, drenching her black-and-white-striped jail uniform.
Alma Chacón feared her baby would arrive early. Her nightmare had started with a traffic stop a day earlier. She’d been weeping since. “What if the baby is born here, in the jail?” she thought.
In the afternoon, she was shackled and transported to Maricopa County Medical Center, where she gave birth in a “forensic restraint.” She couldn’t hold her baby daughter or kiss her. She could only watch as hospital personnel carried the infant out the door. She wouldn’t see the baby for 72 days.
Her case raises questions about the use of racial profiling by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies during traffic stops, but, most importantly, sheds light on the mistreatment of unconvicted immigrants inside county jails.
Chacón retells her story inside her trailer home in Queen Creek. Outside, her children play in the shell of a home under construction. It’s Chacón’s dream townhome, and she’s been building it a block at a time.
She looks younger than 35; her long, black hair rains straight to the small of her back. The immigrant from Durango, Mexico, has quiet tears. She came to America when she was 16 on a tourist visa and never looked back.
No one promised it would be easy. Tamale sales and housecleaning have barely enabled her to feed her children. The father of the first four of her kids died six years ago in a car accident.
Fear of deportation was always a normal part of Chacón’s life in Queen Creek. The town, with a population of 23,000 on the outskirts of Maricopa County, has a contract with the Sheriff’s Office for police services. Like many immigrants, she drives slowly so she doesn’t attract suspicion.
But that didn’t help the afternoon of October 12, 2008, when she came head to head with a sheriff’s deputy. It was a Sunday and she was on her way to cash a check at the grocery store. Giselle, her 8-year-old, was along for the ride.
“He looked at me, did a U-turn, and got behind the car,” she said of the sheriff’s deputy. “There wasn’t time to check my plates.”
When he came to the driver’s-side window, she handed him her Mexican consular card.
“When are you due?” the deputy asked in English.
“October 21,” she answered.
Minutes later, he put her in handcuffs. There were two warrants for her arrest.
Turns out Chacón owed more than $1,000 in fines for driving without a license and had a misdemeanor shoplifting charge. She said that because she isn’t allowed to get a driver’s license because of her undocumented status, she wasn’t able to earn money to pay the fines. She had to drive, she said, to work and support her children. She said even the shoplifting charge came because, after her husband died, she was desperate and stole food to keep her children alive.
“If someone doesn’t come and pick up your daughter in 30 minutes, I’ll call CPS [Child Protective Services],’ the deputy told her.
A neighbor picked up a sobbing Giselle.
“That’s when the nightmare inside the nightmare began,” she said.
She spent her first night at the Fourth Avenue Jail on a cold cement bench. The following day she was taken to the Estrella jail.
During her second night behind bars, the bleeding started. On the morning of October 14, she felt contractions. Her hands and feet shackled, she was in labor and ushered into a paramedic’s van by a detention officer who restrained her to the stretcher.
“That’s not necessary,” the paramedic told the officer.
“It’s my job,” the officer responded. The guard was a Latina.
She thought she would be released from the shackles once she arrived at the hospital, but she wasn’t.
The officer chained her ankle to one leg of the hospital bed.
A nurse requested that she be freed to get a urine sample. But the officer suggested instead that her bed be dragged over to the bathroom.
Later she was changed from her jail uniform into a hospital gown.
“The officer chained me by the feet and the hands to the bed,” she said. “And that’s how my daughter was born.”
Baby Jaqueline was delivered at 9:25 p.m. and weighed 6.28 pounds. Chacón stared at her daughter as nurses cleaned her. It was a precious eight minutes, she said. But they didn’t allow her to hold the baby.
When questioned later about the incident, Sheriff Joe Arpaio said, “I wasn’t the one who kept her from holding the baby. Ask the hospital.”
Sheriff’s Office policy states that jail inmates be restrained for “security reasons in an unsecured facility,” said Jack MacIntyre, an MCSO deputy chief. McIntyre said a 12-foot chain link was attached to Chacón’s leg.
“Let’s assume someone is faking labor — that’s a hypothetical — and she then chose to escape and hit or assault the hospital staff,” McIntyre said. “She could do that easily because it’s an unsecured area.”
Sentenced, pregnant state prison inmates are treated better than un-sentenced ones in Maricopa County jails. Arizona Department of Corrections policies state: “A pregnant woman will not be restrained in any manner while in labor, while giving birth, or during the postpartum recovery period.”
Hospital records mentioned that Chacón had a forensic restraint on her ankle. Doctors turned down a request from New Times to talk about her case, even after Chacón gave consent for the release of her medical files.
Over the following weeks, after she was back in the county lock-up, her breasts swelled and hurt. Jail guards wouldn’t give her a breast pump. Nor would they give her enough medication to make the pain stop. She got one dose of pain medication a day, no matter how extreme her discomfort.
She worried about her four children, who were left alone in the care of her 17-year-old son, William. She said the baby’s father, her boyfriend, had left her after he found out she was pregnant.
“I felt so sad to see her children alone,” said Chacón’s mother, Maria Gómez, who arrived from Durango, Mexico, with a visa four days after her daughter was arrested.
Gómez took care of Chacón’s new baby, who had been picked up at the hospital by a family friend.
On October 29, a judge let her go but told Chacón she’d be on probation for two years, during which time she must pay all her remaining fines.
She waited 14 extra days in jail to be picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“[ICE officers] took me to the Florence Detention Center, where they treated me much better,” she said. “At least not like an animal.”
There, she refused to sign a document for her voluntary removal from the country.
The story of an immigrant mother’s struggle to care for her children was told repeatedly on Spanish-language radio. People in her community raised $3,000 needed to make the bond set by an immigration judge, and she was released from custody.
Chacón’s hopes are up these days. After almost 20 years in the country, she may have a strong case to stay with her five children — who are all U.S.-born and therefore American citizens. Her attorney filed a motion to cancel her deportation, and now she’s hoping to get a work permit.
It’s been a year since the arrest (baby Jacqueline just turned 1).
“I’m not afraid to come out with my story,” she said. “But I’m disappointed to see that not much has been done to stop [Joe Arpaio].”