Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jailed HIV-positive pregnant woman released - for now

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Quinta Layin Tuleh, the HIV-positive pregnant woman a federal judge in Bangor, Maine, ordered jailed until her baby was delivered, has been released on bail while her appeal of her sentence makes its way through the courts.

In May, Judge John Woodcock Jr. ruled that he would jail Tuleh — who pleaded guilty to possessing false immigration documents — for the rest of her pregnancy because he believed that, if she were in prison, she would be more likely to get medical treatment that would reduce the risk of her fetus contracting HIV. He told her that if she were either not pregnant or not HIV-positive, he would have sentenced her to the 114 days she had already spent in jail and let her go free.

The decision was so unusual that both Tuleh and federal prosecutors appealed the sentence for being too harsh. Fifteen state and national organizations (mainly advocates for women's issues, HIV-patients' rights, and reproductive rights) and medical experts filed a joint document supporting both the appeal and Tuleh's request for bail, saying medical care would be better outside of the prison system, and that keeping her locked up simply for being pregnant and HIV-positive was a dangerous precedent other courts have studiously avoided.

Last week, Woodcock agreed, though he is powerless to alter the sentence — the appeal process removes that option from his jurisdiction. Tuleh and the prosecution have asked the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to immediately overturn the sentence and return the case to Woodcock, with the expectation that, this time, he will sentence her to time served and release her immediately.