Fla. sheriff: Mix-up kept pregnant inmate in jail until after giving birth

Sheriff Gregory Tony said his office tried to find "an alternative to incarceration" for Stephanie Bretas


By Rafael Olmeda and Austen Erblat
Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Broward Sheriff's Office tried to have a pregnant inmate released from jail before she gave birth, but a mix-up kept her in custody until it was too late, Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony said in a letter to the woman's lawyers this week.

In a letter to Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, Tony said his office tried to find "an alternative to incarceration" for Stephanie Bretas, 28, who was in custody on a burglary charge from Sept. 6 through Sept. 29.

Members of Chainless Change, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward and Broward Young Black Progressives, march in front of the Broward County Sheriff's Office in response to the recent jail house birth.
Members of Chainless Change, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward and Broward Young Black Progressives, march in front of the Broward County Sheriff's Office in response to the recent jail house birth. (Photo/Carline Jean of South Florida Sun Sentinel via TNS)

Bretas gave birth in her cell on Sept. 27, hours after she says she complained of acute abdominal pain and feared aloud that she was miscarrying. No doctor was called, according to Bretas and her lawyers.

Tony said there was an order to place Bretas in a pretrial release program three days before she gave birth. "In preparing the order, your office included an incorrect case number, which caused a delay in her release while a corrected order was secured," Tony wrote. By the time the problem was corrected, Bretas' son was already born.

The mix-up did not excuse any alleged neglect of the inmate, Tony said. "Those who are found to have failed in their responsibilities will be held accountable," he said.

The sheriff fired two top administrators at the jail last Thursday, less than 24 hours after learning about Bretas' case from her lawyers at the Broward Public Defender's Office. He also opened an internal affairs investigation into whether anyone else should be held accountable for how Bretas' case was handled.

Weekes acknowledged the error that kept Bretas in custody and agreed it had little to do with the jail's legal obligation to provide her with proper medical treatment while in custody.

"The sheriff has taken some decisive action since learning about this case," he said. "It serves no purpose to deflect from the failure to address our client's medical need."

The outcry over Bretas' story drew demonstrators to Broward Sheriff's Office headquarters Wednesday to demand improvements in the treatment of inmates in county jails.

Two demonstrators held a banner depicting an illustration of a mother and child. "Pregnancy is not a crime. Ignoring her is," the banner read.

The demonstration started at the African American Research Library and made its way south to the Public Safety Building. It was organized by a coalition of activist groups, including Chainless Change, which advocates for the humane treatment of people in jail, and Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward. Other speakers represented the Immigrant Action Alliance and the Dignity Coalition of Florida.

" Broward County should not be allowed to lock up pregnant women," said Tray Johns, co-director of Dignity Florida. "If you're past seven months, Broward County needs to have an alternative because they cannot legally care for these women or their children."

The Sheriff's Office is investigating whether Bretas' treatment violated the provisions of the Tammy Jackson Act, which was enacted earlier this year to protect the health of pregnant women in jails. Jackson was a North Broward Jail inmate who gave birth alone in her cell in April 2019.

In his letter to Weekes, Tony insisted the jail's policies are in line with the requirements of the law. Whether those policies were properly followed is part of the internal affairs investigation.

The demonstrators represented "groups with different agendas uniting for one mission to call for the issue of jail treatment to be addressed," said Marq Mitchell, founder of Chainless Change. "People in jail, especially those with mental health issues, have been telling us that their needs are being neglected. We need a change in the culture of (the Broward Sheriff's Office) to make some needed changes."

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(c)2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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