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By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
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By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Ambrett Spencer sat up in bed. It was 2:40 a.m., and the pain in her stomach was not right. She was nine months pregnant, but this didn't feel like labor pains. She'd been pregnant before, and given birth to a healthy boy. This was different.
So Spencer climbed out of her bed and called for medical help.
But she wasn't at home.
Spencer was sleeping in Bunk 69 at Maricopa County's Estrella Jail in west Phoenix. Months before she got pregnant, Spencer, 30, had been arrested for drunk driving and pleaded guilty. She was now serving her sentence. (When she became pregnant, she was in treatment and not drinking, she says.) Doctor visits had confirmed that she was pregnant with a healthy baby girl.
Spencer and her attorney declined interview requests, but the records in an ongoing lawsuit she's filed against Sheriff Joe Arpaio tell the story.
As one of Arpaio's inmates, Spencer had no way of calling a doctor that night, April 21, 2006. The best she could do was call for the detention officer working the graveyard shift.
In the month she'd been in the jail, Spencer had seen plenty of inmates turned away when requesting medical attention, so she was relieved when the guard called the infirmary at a little after 3 a.m. The infirmary nurse asked how bad the pain was.
On a scale of one to 10, Spencer said it was a 10.
The nurse told her to go immediately to the infirmary. So Spencer got ready for a trip to medical.
Then she waited. The sergeant on duty decided that Spencer was not top priority, he said later in a sheriff's report about the incident.
About an hour after she requested help, Spencer was escorted to the infirmary. The one healthcare professional on the premises, a nurse, took Spencer's blood pressure. She also detected the baby's heartbeat, around 4 a.m.
The nurse — who later admitted she had no prenatal training — told Spencer that she'd be going to the hospital, but she also decided that Spencer's pain was not an emergency.
Another hour later, Spencer passed out. The nurse took her blood pressure again; it was fatally low. The nurse called an ambulance and tried to get an IV into Spencer's arm. She couldn't.
When EMT Jarrid Ortiz arrived, Spencer, who is African-American, had lost so much color it was clear to him that it was an emergency. "If you are turning that color, you're not getting enough blood to your organs and skin," Ortiz later told a sheriff's detective.
By the time the ambulance arrived at the Maricopa County Hospital, Spencer had been in severe pain and without a doctor for almost four hours. Doctors delivered Ambria Renee Spencer, a 9-pound baby girl with a quarter-inch of thick hair on her head.
Ambria was dead. Spencer's pain had been caused by internal bleeding — a malady known as placental abruption. Babies often survive the condition, if their mothers go immediately to a hospital. The treatment is simple: immediate delivery. Otherwise, the baby dies from blood loss.
Inmates in Arpaio's jails aren't usually allowed to see their babies after birth. Despite protests from the jail guard, hospital employees brought baby Ambria to Spencer, so she could see her daughter before the funeral.
Spencer described the moment for attorneys in her deposition.
"I kept praying that she would just open her eyes because she looked like she was alive."
Ambrett Spencer was one of 1,578 pregnant women who passed through Arpaio's jails in 2006, county records show. Only 42 of those women gave birth while in custody.
Spencer pleaded guilty to two DUIs and served her time. Now she's out, and she's suing Joe Arpaio and the county's Correctional Health Services department. Spencer believes delayed medical care caused her baby's death.
She's not the only inmate to say so. Four other inmates or their family members have contacted New Times this year, describing miscarriages, stillbirths, or harsh conditions for pregnant women in Arpaio's jails.
They blame poor medical care or, at times, no medical care. They also say that rotten food, potentially contaminated water, a lack of prenatal vitamins, and careless detention officers contribute to the problems.
Records show the claims may not be groundless. For example, the water well in the facility where pregnant women are jailed has been infested with mice and mice feces since 2005, Maricopa County Environmental Health Services Records show.
Mice carry a parasite — toxoplasma — that can infect water and cause birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It's so dangerous that the CDC says pregnant women shouldn't even touch litter boxes — because cats eat mice and their feces can contain the parasite.
"Most infected infants do not have symptoms at birth but can develop serious symptoms later in life, such as blindness or mental disability," the CDC writes in its description. "Occasionally infected newborns have serious eye or brain damage at birth."
In addition to that parasite, Dr. Leslie Barton, a pediatrics professor at the University of Arizona School of Medicine, has found that mice feces and urine also carry a virus that can cause birth defects, including chromosomal defects.