Jail is no place to be pregnant – just ask Tuesday Olson.
Olson learned of her pregnancy in 2013, one day before La Plata County Sheriff’s deputies arrested her for failing to appear in court twice to address a traffic violation. She had recently lost a pregnancy because of health complications and became excited when she learned she had conceived another.
But when Olson experienced abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding while incarcerated, she knew something wasn’t right. She couldn’t afford her $25,000 bail and asked to be taken to a doctor.
But deputies told her to get some rest, she said. Other women incarcerated tried to get her help, but jailers instead put Olson in a medical cell, alone. She started falling over from intense pain, Olson said – a deputy asked her to walk to a medical office, but pain rendered her immobile.
“I screamed and begged and cried,” Olson said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “After hours, I remember waking up in an ambulance.”
The La Plata County Jail has since partnered with Southern Health Partners to offer 24-hour care, a medical service the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado says could have, at least in part, kept Olson from the pain she experienced.
Olson shared her story with the ACLU last year after completing probation. The nonprofit legal organization this week published an interview with Olson about her experience in the La Plata County Jail “as an opportunity to both educate and bring more folks to the table to talk about these issues,” said Lizzy Hinkley, reproductive rights policy council with the ACLU of Colorado.
Untimely careDoctors at Mercy Regional Medical Center diagnosed and treated Olson for an ectopic pregnancy, a rare and potentially fatal reproductive condition in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus.
Olson’s fertilized egg planted in her fallopian tube and grew, causing the pelvic pain and vaginal bleeding. Surgeons cut Olson from hip to hip and found her fallopian tube ruptured. She’d been bleeding internally and lost a significant amount of blood.
Doctors treated Olson, who recovered in the hospital for just a few days before she was back in custody at the La Plata County Jail. But deputies refused Olson medication prescribed for her recovery after surgery, she said. She was kept in isolation and experienced depression related to her lost pregnancy.
After days of demanding medical attention, Olson was re-admitted to Mercy for complications related to her previous surgery. Doctors found Olson had a blood infection, kidney failure and had been bleeding internally.
Surgeons removed Olson’s fallopian tube and ovary as a result, releasing her with half of her reproductive organs missing. Only after her second surgery was she released from jail.
“I look down and I have this huge scar across my stomach,” she said. “I look down at these scars with no baby in my hands.”
Changed foreverOlson has been working for almost a decade to overcome the physical and emotional trauma she associates with her time in the La Plata County Jail.
“I can literally start my menstrual cycle and automatically be triggered,” Olson said of her post-traumatic stress. “Trauma comes in its own form. I don’t know how to get past that, I don’t know how to process it.”
Olson tumbled through the judicial system in the years after her ectopic pregnancy – she went to rehab, was incarcerated at least two other times in La Plata County and got sentenced to three years’ probation in 2016, which she completed successfully last year.
But it doesn’t take much to trigger pain related to the trauma she experienced almost seven years ago.
“I honestly just want to roll up into a ball and cry because these people got away with that, and it’s not fair,” she said.
Changing a systemOlson’s ectopic pregnancy could not have been prevented, but earlier treatment could have saved her from the pain and internal bleeding she experienced, said Hinkley with the ACLU of Colorado.
Women represent about 10% of the La Plata County Jail’s population, said Capt. Ed Aber. Aber ran the jail when Olson said she was incarcerated and pregnant with her daughter, MeMarie.
The jail now contracts for medical services, Aber said. It has health professionals with Southern Health Partners on-site 24-hours a day, a change implemented after Sheriff Sean Smith was elected in 2016.
Aber said he could not speak to previous policy, but having a nurse on duty every day offers jailers an option to get someone care without having to bring that person to Mercy Regional Medical Center.
The trauma from her ectopic pregnancy years before left her “scared to death” while pregnant in jail a second time, Olson said. While fear persisted, new leadership led to a less traumatic experience – “Sean Smith has done an amazing job of turning things around,” Olson said.
Each individual Olson named as responsible for her injuries no longer works at the jail, Aber said. Medical personnel at the jail now work with pregnant women on an individual basis to get them the care they need, he said.
“It’s really about building a plan around the individual that supports their health during that pregnancy, and every one is different,” Aber said. “Everyone has different needs, different risks.”
But prenatal care for women incarcerated in Colorado is not uniform. Reproductive health policies at jails around the state vary in length and specificity, Hinkley said. And populations of women in jail around the country have grown at twice the pace of men’s incarceration in recent decades, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
“This is part of a bigger issue,” Hinkley said of Olson’s experiences in the La Plata County Jail. “It’s an example of what happens in all corners of the state.”
[email protected]A previous version of this story misspelled Tuesday Olson’s last name and the first name of her daughter, MeMarie. Olson’s name was spelled “Olsen” and her daughter’s name was spelled Memory.