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Jury awards $1 million to inmate who gave birth alone in cell

By Christine Clarridge, The Seattle Times –

SEATTLE — A federal jury on Friday awarded nearly $1 million to a severely mentally ill homeless woman who gave birth alone on the floor of a King County Jail cell 14 years ago.

Jurors in U.S. District Court in Seattle deliberated for nearly three full days before finding that Imka Pope’s constitutional right to medical care while in custody was violated by King County Jail staff. Pope was awarded $850,000 for her pain and suffering and $125,000 in punitive damages.

In her lawsuit, Pope claimed her constitutional right to receive medical care while in jail was violated when jail officials failed to treat her mental illness or address her advanced pregnancy. Pope, then 27, on Nov. 21, 1997, gave birth “alone, terrified and in terrible pain” despite having told two correctional officers that she was in labor and needed help, the lawsuit alleged.

Help came only after a guard heard the baby crying, according to the lawsuit against the county and several correctional officers and nurses.

The lawsuit, filed in 2007, claimed nurses and corrections officers at the facility knew, or should have known, Pope was pregnant and that they dismissed her claims of being in labor as the ramblings of a mentally ill woman.

The county’s own jail-practices expert concluded the staff “probably did this because they believe she’s just mentally ill, she’s just pretending to have a baby,” according to trial briefs filed in the case.

James Apa, a spokesman for Public Health-Seattle & King County, which oversees medical care in the jail, said Friday the county may appeal the verdict.

“We share the jury’s sympathy for the plight of the mentally ill and we appreciate the care they took in reaching their decision, however, we respectfully disagree,” he said.

The money would come from the county’s risk-management fund, Apa said.

Pope’s attorney, Chris Carney, said his client’s life has been tragic and difficult, and the money awarded in the case may allow her some small measure of safety, security and a chance for a better life.

King County Jail spokesman Cmdr. Willie Hayes called the circumstances of the jail-cell birth “extremely unfortunate” but said the jail has adopted new protocols and policies, including ones mandating a full medical assessment of every inmate at intake.

The lawsuit wasn’t filed earlier because Pope was either in a hospital or on the streets and was unable to comprehend that her rights may have been violated, according to her attorneys. As a result, the statute of limitations in the case was extended

The county disputed Pope’s claims of medical malpractice and negligence, saying Pope’s severe mental problems made it impossible for the staff to assess her health. In addition, they say, Pope was uncooperative when questioned, would not disclose her real name and did not reveal she was pregnant.

Pope was booked into the jail Nov. 15, 1997, after police arrested her for sleeping on a bench at a bus stop.

She was not physically examined or given a pregnancy test, her lawsuit alleged. Instead, she was sent to the psychiatric ward, where she was placed in 23-hour lockdown.

The child was born in the cell and suffered a heart defect and neurological damage.

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