Controversy over why CO delivered a baby inside a N.Y. jail cell
A corrections officer, not a medical professional, received the newborn, hit him on the back to summon his first breaths and responded when he turned blue, an internal report says
By Matthew Spina
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
LOCKPORT, N.Y. — When a baby was born inside the Niagara County Jail in July, the jail's top administrator said the child arrived so quickly there was no time to get the mother to a hospital for the delivery.
The mother, however, says there was plenty of time. And the jail's internal reports back her up.
Almost two hours passed between the moment the mother first told a jail officer of her abdominal pains and the baby's arrival, according to the internal documents and the inmate.
Both say that even as contractions quickened and intensified, a supervising nurse employed by the jail's medical contractor doubted the woman was in labor and did not call an ambulance.
As a result, the baby was born in a jail cell, which health experts say is among the worst places for a birth.
A corrections officer, not a medical professional, received the newborn, hit him on the back to summon his first breaths and responded when he turned blue, an internal report says.
"I feel like I wasn't treated as a person," Samantha Waterstram, 32, said of the jail's medical staff.
Waterstram said that as she headed deeper into labor, the supervising nurse mentioned more than once that her shift was ending at 7:30 p.m.
"I just feel like because I'm in jail and I'm an inmate that the nurse and the medical team just don't look at us as people," said Waterstram, who on Aug. 22 was sentenced by Niagara County Judge John Ottaviano to 1 to 3 years in state prison for a probation violation.
Niagara County Jail inmates have given birth over the years, but in hospitals, Chief Daniel N. Greenwald, told The Buffalo News soon after the baby was born on July 16, a Saturday.
This delivery was different, Greenwald explained in July, because it happened so fast: "Within 30 to 40 minutes from the incarcerated individual saying they were having some pains, there was a baby born," he said.
But there was more to the story.
"I don't think we had all the information in hand at that point in time that we have now," Greenwald's boss, Sheriff Michael Filicetti, said days ago.
Despite revelations about the nearly two-hour timeline, however, the sheriff said he is satisfied with medical contractor PrimeCare's response. But he refused to say that a corrections officer, not a nurse, received the baby.
"She was under medical care here at the facility," Filicetti said of the mother. "She was being observed here at the facility. Her complaint of abdominal pains or labor pains weren't being ignored," Filicetti said, adding later, "every childbirth is different."
'Not safe places'
Babies are not supposed to be delivered in jails. State rules require jails to plan to get inmates going into labor to medical facilities that have better resources to respond to emergencies during birth. But the Niagara County Jail's response was better than the response seen elsewhere.
A woman in Denver gave birth to a child while alone in her cell in July 2018 after repeatedly telling deputies and nurses she was having contractions, according to media reports there. She settled her lawsuit, which said her solitary labor went on for five hours, for $480,000.
"Jails are not medical facilities," said Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine whose research focuses on reproductive health care for incarcerated women. "They do not have staff who are trained to help women give birth, and they are not trained to resuscitate or support a newborn baby. They are not safe places for a person to give birth."
Correctional facilities hesitate to transport people to hospitals because it creates logistical hassles and security risks, Sufrin said. Those concerns, she said, should be outweighed by the harm that can occur.
"We need to think about the health, safety and welfare of the birthing person as well as the baby," Sufrin said.
Waterstram has been arrested a few times in recent years. She entered the jail in May on a charge of endangering the welfare of a child — because of unsafe living conditions in her home, according to court records. She also was accused of violating the terms of probation she received after misconduct while behind bars in 2019; Waterstram agreed in an interview that she didn't always report to her probation officer.
The jail medical team was informed of Waterstram's pregnancy. The baby, however, arrived weeks before the due date. Still, Waterstram said she had given birth to five other children and knew how her body performed during labor. She said that when she started experiencing pains on the evening of July 16, she knew the baby was coming.
"Even if it was a false alarm and you go to the hospital, all you do is come back," she said. "It's no big deal."
Waterstram told The Buffalo News that she first told a corrections officer of her labor pains between 5 and 5:30 p.m. The corrections officer, Natalie Wagner, said in a report that Waterstram gave her the news at 5:47 p.m.
The baby was born one hour and 48 minutes later, at 7:35 p.m.
The Niagara County Sheriff's Office refused The Buffalo News' Freedom of Information request for the internal reports, saying their release would violate the inmate's right to keep her health information private. But a reporter at The News has seen the internal reports. And Waterstram, when interviewed, said she wanted the truth made public and her name used.
Wagner wrote that she immediately told another corrections officer, Traci Haner, that the inmate was feeling pain in her lower abdomen.
Haner was crucial to the events that unfolded on July 16.
A 'gut feeling'
"It was my understanding that inmate Waterstram was currently pregnant and due in a few weeks," Haner wrote in her official summary. "I considered her complaint to require urgent medical attention."
Haner turned to a nurse who was nearby, responding to another inmate's medical needs, and asked her to evaluate the mother. The nurse did so, then said she would ask a doctor on call whether she should go to a hospital, Haner wrote.
Jail records show that the director of nursing, JoAnne Brossoit, arrived at 6:23 p.m. to take a fetal heart rate and other vital signs and to feel the contractions with her hands. At that point, they were about four minutes apart.
Brossoit received her nursing license almost 40 years ago and, according to her Facebook page, started working for PrimeCare in 2016. She stated it was her "gut feeling" that the woman was not in labor, according to Waterstram and the summaries written by Haner and Wagner.
Haner wrote that the nursing director suspected the inmate was experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, a tightening of the abdomen that comes and goes and is sometimes called false labor pains.
As she left, Nurse Brossoit told Haner to call her if the mother's water broke or if she lost her mucus plug or if the contractions came closer together. Around a half-hour later — Haner's report and jail records are fuzzy on the exact time — Brossoit returned to discuss moving the mother to the infirmary if she remained in pain, but the nurse was not sending her to a hospital, according to Haner's summary.
By 7:15 p.m., the situation was urgent. The two corrections officers spoke again. Wagner told Haner that the mother was crying and yelling in pain. Waterstram had timed her contractions and found they were two minutes apart. Waterstram was past the point when she should be in a hospital or a birthing facility, according to Kaiser Permanente, a nonprofit health plan that operates nationwide. It says women who have given birth before should go to a hospital when contractions occur every five to seven minutes.
In her report, Haner wrote that she called Brossoit, who had returned to the jail's medical unit, to tell her of Waterstram's condition.
Did the inmate's water break? Brossoit reportedly asked.
"I told her that I did not know, only that she was yelling in pain ..." Haner's report says.
"RN Brossoit then stated that I needed to go back and ask her.
"I told RN Brossoit that she needs to come back up here and see her then hung up the phone," Haner wrote.
The sheriff and his top jail administrator said they were not dissatisfied with the medical team's response. Even if they were, the medical team doesn't work directly for them. In most respects, the jail's medical care is run by PrimeCare, a private company that is among the nation's largest specializing in medical care inside prisons and jails.
PrimeCare is the Niagara County Jail's third medical provider in a decade. In December 2012, the county hired Armor Correctional Health of Miami, Fla. Three inmates died on Armor's watch. The county ended Armor's contract in 2015, two months early, and sued to recover legal fees from the wrongful death lawsuits, according to county records. Armor was replaced with Correctional Medical Care of Blue Bell, Pa. When that company presented the county with a rate increase in 2016, it was replaced with PrimeCare.
Niagara County hired PrimeCare in 2016 for $2.37 million in the first year. About a month later, DeJuan L. Hunt II died in custody. The state Commission of Correction faulted PrimeCare and predecessor Correctional Medical Care by saying Hunt might be alive if not for the "shockingly inadequate" medical and mental health care he received.
The Niagara County Legislature has renewed PrimeCare's contract since 2016 and did so unanimously in 2021 by approving a resolution saying PrimeCare had helped the jail earn accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and is expected to do so again.
PrimeCare, headquartered in Harrisburg, Pa., did not return messages seeking comment on that state report or for this article. Nor did Brossoit.
When interviewed, Waterstram said she was troubled by something she heard from Brossoit.
"She literally kept saying she was getting off work at 7:30 — like that was supposed to mean something to me," Waterstram said.
"I did not take it as a joke."
After hanging up with Brossoit on the night of July 16, Haner headed back to Waterstram's cell. A licensed practical nurse, who lacks the training of a registered nurse, was in the women's unit giving out medicines. The LPN joined Haner, according to Haner's report.
Waterstram had removed her shorts, and Haner could see the crown of the baby's head as the inmate pushed. Then Waterstram announced that the baby was stuck.
Wrote Haner: "I then, with a gloved hand, assisted the baby's head come out by circling around his face where it appeared to be stuck. The baby's head then came out."
The inmate pushed a few more times.
"The baby came out rather quickly and was caught by this officer," Haner wrote. "The time of birth is listed as 1935 hours."
She said she held the boy to her chest to listen for a breath. Hearing none, she cleared his mouth.
"I did hear a small squeaky cry, but the baby was still struggling to breathe. I then flipped him over and gave a few back blows in an attempt top clear his airway. After the back blows, the baby began crying," Haner's report says.
By then, an ambulance was on its way, and Brossoit had arrived in the cell. The reports show her playing no role in the delivery.
The scramble wasn't over. Suddenly, the newborn was turning blue. Haner wrote that she warmed the child with wet towels, the LPN stimulated his back and a registered nurse who had arrived with Brossoit suctioned his mouth. Stronger breathing returned.
Waterstram told The News that when she saw Brossoit she complained to her for doubting the baby was coming. Brossoit did not protest and reported that she had requested an ambulance, Waterstram said.
Antonio, who weighed 7 pounds, 13 ounces at birth, is now with Waterstram's father.
"She should have been brought to the hospital," Anthony Primerano of Niagara Falls, the baby's father, said of Waterstram. "The hospital could have sent her back. You are messing with somebody's health."
Waterstram will go on at length about Haner's role in delivering the baby.
"She really deserves all the credit for my baby being OK," she said.
She said she thanked the corrections officer profusely when she returned to the jail after a few days with her newest child in Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.
"We just cried," Waterstram said. "I just thanked her, and I just wanted to tell her how much I appreciated her. It was a good emotional moment."