A story of misplaced paternalism and the wrong answer to a pressing problem

An HIV-positive pregnant woman has been jailed by a US judge, who believes that the health-care provided by the country’s immigration system is so poor, that prison is her best bet for ensuring she doesn’t pass on HIV to her child, reports bangordailynews.com.

Obviously, this doesn’t reflect well on the immigration system in the US, and there’s clearly a major problem if healthcare in prison is better than that available for people who are only criminals by virtue of having the audacity to try and move freely in a world that values people differently depending on where they’re born.

But Quinta Layin Tuleh, aged 28 from Cameroon, has been sentenced to 238 days in federal prison for possessing false documents – against the urgings of both defence and prosecution lawyers – because US District Judge John Woodcock thinks he knows best, and feels free to use the force of the law to impose prison to protect – not Quinta – but her fetus:

Woodcock told Tuleh at her sentencing on May 14 in U.S. District Court that he was not imposing the longer prison term to punish her further but to protect her unborn child. He said that the defendant was more likely to receive medical treatment and follow a drug regimen in federal prison than out on her own or in the custody of immigration officials. The judge also said that his decision was based entirely on her HIV status. If Tuleh were pregnant but not infected with the AIDS virus, he would have sentenced her to time served.

The Maine Civil Liberties Union criticized Woodcock’s decision when informed of it by the Bangor Daily News.

“We are enormously sympathetic to the desire to ensure that Ms. Tuleh receives adequate health care, including prenatal care,” Zachary Heiden, legal director for the MCLU, said in an e-mail. “Federal immigration law has developed in truly arbitrary and punitive ways. Here, even a federal judge could not get assurances that Ms. Tuleh would not be deported before the end of her pregnancy. He could not get assurances she would not have her medical care arbitrarily cut off. That is wrong.

“Judges cannot lock a woman up simply because she is sick and pregnant,” he said. “Judges have enormous discretion in imposing sentences, and that is appropriate. But jailing someone is punishment — it is depriving them of liberty. That deprivation has to be justified, and illness or pregnancy is not justification for imprisonment.”

And the judge’s justification:

“My obligation is to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant,” he said at Tuleh’s sentencing, “and that public, it seems to me at this point, should likely include that child she’s carrying. I don’t think that the transfer of HIV to an unborn child is a crime technically under the law, but it is as direct and as likely as an ongoing assault.

“If I had — if I were to know conclusively that upon release from imprisonment a defendant was going to assault another person,” Woodcock said, “I would act in a fashion to prevent that, and similar to an assault, causing grievous injury to a wholly innocent person. And so I think I have the obligation to do what I can to protect that person, when that person is born, from permanent and ongoing harm.”

Except, of course, that it’s not Tuleh that is committing “assault” but a system which denies her adequate healthcare.

(It’s not the main point, but I shudder to think what sort of precedent this sets regarding abortion, too… imprisoning women because they might commit “assault” against a fetus?)

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