The marquee item at the August 17 Denver City Council meeting was an ultimately unsuccessful proposal by Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca to replace the Denver Police Department with a "peace force" in which fewer than half of officers would have had the power to make arrests or use guns.
But another agenda item, which the council approved, was extremely important to Lisa Calderón, CdeBaca's chief of staff: a resolution authorizing the City of Denver to pay $160,000 — in addition to $320,000 already ponied up by Denver Health — to settle liability claims made by Diana Sanchez after she gave birth unattended in Denver County Jail during a horrific and agonizing 2018 episode. As confirmed by video, she pleaded for help from nurses and deputies over the course of several hours, but to no avail.
The $480,000 to be paid to Sanchez and her son, Jordan Sanchez-Meraz, who'll receive regular payments from Denver Health beginning when he turns seven and continuing through his 21st birthday, is certainly a considerable sum. But it seems somewhat modest in light of the horrors Sanchez experienced and is far less than the $3.25 million paid to Jamal Hunter, a former inmate whose genitals were scalded with boiling water poured on him by fellow prisoners and was also attacked by deputies, as Calderón points out.
"The amount pales in comparison to the kind of settlement agreements that we see men getting for being abused in jail," she says. "And while I applaud those settlements to force the city to be accountable for the injuries, the much smaller award in comparison tells us how much we value women's bodies. The fact that we don't see giving birth alone in a jail cell, and the trauma that went along with that, as worthy of a higher dollar amount tells you how little regard we have for the medical care of women in this situation."
Attorney Mari Newman of Denver-based Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP, who represents Sanchez, understands Calderón's reaction and stresses that "I would be the first person to stand up and decry disparate treatment of inmates on the basis of sex. But I don't think this is that case." She points out that Hunter suffered permanent injuries as a result of what was done to him with the alleged complicity of Denver Sheriff Department deputies, while both Sanchez and Jordan, now age two, miraculously emerged with their health intact.
As a result, Newman believes the sheriff's department and Denver Health "dodged a bullet, because there certainly was the potential for a devastating outcome. But it's an important distinction between, on the one hand, volitional torture of a person in custody and, on the other, deliberate indifference. Both of them are unconstitutional and intolerable, but they're not the same."
Sanchez gave birth while incarcerated on the morning of July 31, 2018. As Newman told us last September, around the time a lawsuit was filed in the case, "she was in a medical observation cell, which is why there were cameras. They have cameras there so jail and medical staff outside the cell can observe what is happening — and that's why there's absolutely no justification for them not taking action. They could see she was in excruciating pain, and that was coupled with the fact that she continued to cry out for help."
Rather than staying silent, Sanchez took her tale to Fox31 reporter Rob Low, whose initial package about what happened ran on August 30, 2018, about a month after the birth. Sanchez appeared on camera to decry her treatment, supplemented by comments from Calderón. But at the time, the surveillance video wasn't available, and that likely explains why the piece didn't get the traction it did a year later, when the footage was made public.
Here's Low's followup, intercut with snippets from Sanchez's 2018 interview.
Given the negligence of nurses working in the jail, Denver Health faced an uphill battle when it came to fighting the lawsuit. The institution sought to keep its settlement confidential, but according to Newman, Fox31's Low managed to get the details by way of an open-records request.
Here's a statement Denver Health provided to Westword about the resolution:
Denver Health provides high-quality medical care to thousands of inmates every year. Our patients are our number one priority and we make every effort to ensure they receive the proper care. As part of our commitment to continuous improvement, we reviewed and revised our health care protocols for pregnant inmates requiring medical attention, with all labor or pregnancy related symptoms treated as an emergent situation. We also updated our staff education materials and ensured all staff were appropriately trained using these. We wish Diana Sanchez and her child well. In relation to Ms. Sanchez and Denver Health, the case is resolved and we consider the matter closed.
As for the Denver Sheriff Department, spokesperson Daria Serna confirms that a deputy involved in the incident who was found to have followed procedures in place at the time received no discipline for his action; she notes that the department subsequently "changed its policy to require that any pregnant inmate who is in labor must be immediately transported to Denver Health Medical Center."
These modest disclosures fall well short of adequate, in Calderón's view. "Two years later, the public still has no answers about who, if anyone, was held accountable for a woman giving birth alone in Denver's jail," she points out. "We don't know the procedures that have been strengthened other than that any staff member can call for immediate transport, and we don't know how pregnant women are going to be cared for from the time they're admitted to the jail through their potential delivery. There have been no protocols publicly discussed, and there's never been a press conference that talked about pregnant women and what has changed. It looks like no one has been held accountable." That includes former sheriff Patrick Firman, who resigned last year and immediately was given what Calderón refers to as a "parachute job," working as a data analyst for Mayor Michael Hancock.
Newman, meanwhile, says that Sanchez's "main motivations in coming forward with the case were twofold. One, she wanted to make sure that no mother and child had to suffer the same indignity that she and her baby had to suffer. It was petrifying for Diana to give birth in a jail cell all alone with absolutely no medical care. And the other was to make sure her child's future was secure, and she's gratified she's been able to do those two things. With regard to the second component, the baby's share is being placed into special annuities that will grow exponentially over the course of his youth, so he will have a much better opportunity to move forward with his life when he's a young man."
As part of the settlement, Newman adds, "Denver Health is providing mandatory annual training to all the medical professionals in both the Denver City Jail and county jail on how to treat pregnant inmates, and in particular, the need to provide prompt medical care and make sure they're taken to the hospital when necessary."
And one more thing: Calderón tells us that according to her sources, at least one of the nurses who was involved in the Sanchez incident "is still working in the Denver jail."
Click to read Diana Sanchez v. City and County of Denver, et al.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.