What You Don't Know About Story of Woman Giving Birth in Denver Jail

Diana Sanchez giving birth alone in the Denver jail circa 2018.
Diana Sanchez giving birth alone in the Denver jail circa 2018. YouTube
News hounds probably think they've heard everything there is to know about the lawsuit filed by Diana Sanchez after she gave birth in Denver County Jail. After all, the horrific 2018 incident, captured on video excerpted here, has been widely covered locally, nationally and even internationally since the complaint was made public last week.

But there's plenty about the shocking story most folks have yet to hear, including its connection to the February 2006 Denver jail death of Emily Rice, which received its first extensive coverage in Westword. Attorney Mari Newman of Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, accuses Denver Sheriff Department personnel of ignoring procedures established by a cumulative $7 million settlement over Rice's passing paid in 2008 by the City of Denver and Denver Health, which provides medical care for inmates at the facility. There's also a connection to the 2015 jail death of Michael Marshall, including the revelation that a deputy at the center of the case was nominated for a departmental life-saving award despite its tragic outcome.

Most news agencies have noted that Denver has reacted to the incident by clarifying that pregnant inmates in labor will be transported to a hospital. But as confirmed by the new policy provided to Westword by the DSD, the change involves a single sentence appended to a section that previously contained no mention of this scenario and dealt primarily with prohibiting leg shackles or waist restraints.

Newman says Denver officials have known about the damning video for at least a year, if not more, and she wouldn't have released it if they had admitted that the matter had been handled improperly and made efforts to address the situation. Instead, she maintains, "they issued a very cursory letter where they basically said, 'We did everything we were supposed to. We did nothing wrong.' And I didn't hear from Denver Health at all, despite the fact that I wrote to them repeatedly."

These stances have resulted in incredibly bad publicity for Denver law enforcement and is likely to lead to a larger payout for Sanchez than if the powers-that-be had taken a different course. But it's too late for that now. Indeed, the statements the sheriff's department and Denver Health provided to Westword suggest that they're girding for an extended trek through the legal system.

click to enlarge The late Emily Rice. - FAMILY PHOTO VIA YOUTUBE
The late Emily Rice.
Family photo via YouTube
"We empathize with anyone who is in jail while pregnant, including Ms. Sanchez," the DSD reply begins. "We contract with Denver Health Medical to provide comprehensive medical care at both of our jails. Denver Health medical professionals are housed in the jail facilities and have dedicated medical units to provide medical services for those in our care. Ms. Sanchez was in the medical unit and under the care of Denver Health medical professionals at the time she gave birth. To make sure nothing like this happens again, the Denver Sheriff Department has changed its policies to ensure that pregnant inmates who are in any stage of labor are now transported immediately to the hospital. Unfortunately, because there is a lawsuit pending, we are unable to provide further comment at this time."

Denver Health strikes a similar tone but uses fewer words: "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 this is a pending legal matter we are not able to comment at this time."

Sanchez gave birth while incarcerated on the morning of July 31, 2018, and as Newman points out, "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, about a month after the birth. Sanchez appeared on camera to decry her treatment, supplemented by comments from Lisa Calderón, a former Denver mayoral candidate now working as chief of staff for recently elected Denver City Council member Candi CdeBaca. But at the time, the surveillance video wasn't available, and that likely explains why the piece didn't get the traction it has in recent days, as Newman acknowledges.

"People's impulse is to believe these kinds of things could never happen to them or somebody they love," she allows. "But when they see it on video, it really brings into stark relief just how vulnerable all of us are when our government thinks this kind of callousness and cruelty is somehow not problematic. It brings it to life in a way that people just can't let themselves imagine otherwise."

According to Newman's records, she requested any video pertaining to Sanchez's experiences in September 2018. The images she eventually received are startling even with portions blurred, but Newman says Sanchez didn't balk about them being sent to the press after it became clear a lawsuit was in the offing. "She consistently said this was a horrible thing that happened to her and she didn't want it to happen to anybody else — that it was important to do what was necessary to make sure nobody suffered like she and her baby had," Newman says.

As for the media roll-out, Sanchez liked the way Low dealt with the subject the previous year — so he was given an exclusive. Here are the results, with the surveillance segments intercut with 2018 interview snippets.

The suit contends that none of the events captured in this clip would have happened had personnel followed what are referred to as Emily's Protocols in the settlement over Rice's death, which took place after she was booked into jail on suspicion of driving under the influence following a car accident; the serious injuries she suffered during the crash weren't discovered by deputies or Denver Health nurses until she was beyond saving. The key provision from the document, also linked below, reads:
The determination to transport any individual to an area hospital from the jails without specific instructions by medical staff is reserved to Sergeants and higher ranks. Accordingly, department orders shall provide that all corrections staff be trained that they must alert a supervisor if they believe from a lay person’s perspective that an inmate requires additional medical attention from the jail medical staff. If supervisors believe that an inmate requires additional medical attention, they are to take reasonable steps to resolve conflicts with medical concerns, including making direct calls to the on-call physician and/or utilizing 911 services to transport persons to area hospitals. If supervisory staff continue to believe that an inmate requires additional medical attention for a serious medical need, supervisory staff must alert a Division Chief.
That these edicts weren't obeyed disappoints but doesn't shock Newman. After all, she says, another one of the protocols required the city to produce a training video for jail personnel that would use missteps related to Rice to teach them to avoid problems in the future. But the video the department ultimately created, obtained by Denver7 in August 2014, actually went out of its way to blame Rice for her own death. "That video wasn't about the sheriff's department," her father, Roy Rice, told the station after seeing it for the first time. "It was about 'bad Emily.' It's a crap video." Afterward, the department discontinued the video's use.

Likewise, the suit contends that Michael Marshall would still be alive if Emily's Protocols had been put into effect on November 7, 2015, after deputies piled atop him when he allegedly "was observed behaving in a strange and erratic manner." Last year, the Office of the Independent Monitor issued a scorching condemnation of the episode, and Newman sees the following passage, and its reference to Deputy Bret Garegnani, as particularly telling:
We were troubled that after Mr. Marshall's death, some in the DSD appeared to minimize potential issues with the incident instead of seeing it as an opportunity to learn. This included the attempt by IAB to decline the matter without a full investigation and to close it without a disciplinary review. It also included the nomination, submitted by a DSD sergeant nearly a month-and-a-half before the criminal investigation had concluded, of Deputy Garegnani for the DSD's Life Saving Award for this incident — even though Mr. Marshall, in fact, had died.
click to enlarge The Denver jail where the incident took place. - YOUTUBE
The Denver jail where the incident took place.
To put it mildly, Newman is singularly unimpressed with the department's track record concerning Emily's Protocol — so she was hardly placated by reports about the fresh DSD approach toward pregnant inmates. "They needed a new policy to say when a woman is in labor, they're required to take her to a hospital?" she asks. "Are you kidding me? I mean, birth doesn't come on as a surprise. This isn't some sort of emergency where people don't get any kind of warning. If taking a woman in labor to the hospital didn't already fall within some policy in the Denver jail, it's an even more dangerous place than we already knew."

The policy's new line reads: "All pregnant inmates who are in labor shall be transported to the hospital via ambulance." However, there is nothing related to hospitalization in the previous text under the "Pregnant Inmates" section, which focuses on restraint. It reads:
When restraining a female inmate who is reasonably believed to be known to be pregnant, staff shall use the least restrictive restraints necessary to ensure safety. The requirement to use the least restrictive restraints necessary to ensure safety shall continue during postpartum recovery and transport to or from a correctional facility....

Use of leg shackles or waist restrains is prohibited on an inmate during labor and delivery of the child, postpartum recovery while in a medical facility, or transport to or from a medical facility for childbirth.
The video of Sanchez giving birth proved to be a bombshell. But Newman insists that putting it out was a last resort: "My true hope was that Denver and Denver Health were going to do the right thing and there was never going to be a need to release this video. I was, as anybody can understand, very protective of my client and reluctant to release it unless it was truly necessary."

In the end, Sanchez gave the go-ahead to let Low use the video, knowing that plenty of others would, too. But having such a private moment on view "has been really rough on her," Newman concedes. "Diana is definitely struggling. This is the kind of trauma that doesn't go away. And even though she and the baby are doing fine physically, I want to be clear: The fact that Denver and Denver Health didn't happen to kill anybody this time just means they got lucky — and that certainly doesn't absolve them from responsibility for their abject failure to take appropriate action to care for Diana and the baby. If Denver walks away from this saying, 'No one died this time, so we're okay,' then they're not taking this as an opportunity to fix the deep and profound problems in the culture of the city and the jail."

Click to read Diana Sanchez v. City and County of Denver, et al., the Denver Sheriff Department policy in regard to transferring pregnant inmates, the complete list of Emily's Protocols and The Death of Michael Marshall: Independent Monitor Review.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts