A former inmate says she’s suing the private company that operates the Dawson State Jail in Dallas to prevent future deaths. Autumn Miller’s four-day old daughter died after being born in one of the jail’s toilets.
Corrections Corporation of America said its officers tried to help mother and child. But Miller told KERA’s Shelley Kofler medical care was delayed and denied.
A sad smile crosses Autumn Miller’s face as she thumbs through the baby pictures on her cell phone.
“This is the funeral service. She has a rosary in her hand my sister bought for her,” Miller says pointing to an infant the size of a doll wearing a white satin headband and a little pink dress.
“Here’s her holding my hand,” she says pausing to gaze at another photo. “That’s how small her hand is.”
Tiny Gracie was premature at 26 weeks and weighed less than two pounds when Miller unexpectedly delivered her last June.
Miller suspected she was pregnant soon after entering the Dawson State Jail. She was serving a one year sentence for violating probation on a drug possession charge.
Miller claims jail employees ignored her request for a pregnancy test. Then when she began bleeding and cramping shortly after midnight on June 14 there were no medical personnel on duty in the jail.
She says a video conferencing screen was available to talk with nurses or doctors off-site, but a guard decided that wasn’t necessary.
“The doctor (on the teleconference screen) said, ‘What do you need I’m real busy?’ And the guard said, ‘That’s OK we don’t need you for her,’ and turned the screen off,”said Miller.
“I was almost to the point of being in shock because I was in so much pain. I was in full-blown labor. I could barely walk.”
Miller says her bleeding increased as guards locked her in a holding cell. She says she had just reached the toilet when Gracie was born.
“I started to panic and I started to scream and they couldn’t find the keys to get into the cell. She wasn’t crying and I know she should have been crying so there was desperation, you know?”
Time passed as the guards tried to open the cell. More time passed as they called for paramedics to transfer the baby to the hospital.
For the next four days nurses and doctors tried to save Gracie. Miller was allowed to hold her baby as she slipped away.
“She was fully formed. She had all her toes and fingers. She was beautiful,” said Miller, tears pooling in her eyes.
In her federal lawsuit Miller claims jail employees were indifferent to her requests for help and that CCA didn’t properly train staff or follow their own policies for medical emergencies.
In a written statement Wednesday CCA’s Senior Director of Public Affairs Steven Owen said:
“CCA has serious disagreements with the account of events as detailed by plaintiff's attorneys, and will respond to the complaint through appropriate filings. CCA officers responded compassionately and appropriately that day to assist Ms. Miller and her baby, and their involvement very likely sustained the infant in the early moments of life.”
Miller says CCA is trying to pass the blame to someone else.
“Had they just stopped and listened to me and treated me like a human being they could have gotten me emergency care,” she said. “I could have been somewhere so she could have gotten the help she needed right away.”
Activists opposed to private, for-profit prisons like Dawson recently released a report linking poor medical care to the deaths of several female inmates at Dawson. Miller says she’s concerned about other women still serving time there.
She hopes state lawmakers follow through with plans to close Dawson in August.
“I want what’s happening there to stop,” said Miller in explaining why she’s recounting Gracie’s story. “Her life may save lives by getting people to listen.”
CCA’s statement points out that it does not provide the medical care at Dawson, the State of Texas has a separate contract covering that. But CCA says, “we take our role in the process of providing inmates access to care very seriously.”
CCA has so far not agreed to KERA’s requests for an interview.