Attorney General James Protects Abortion Access at Jefferson County Jail

AG Secures Changes to Jail’s Policies after Medical Staff Denied Reproductive Health Care to Incarcerated Pregnant Woman for Weeks

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James announced an agreement with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office that will institute new policies and require additional training at the Jefferson County Correctional Facility to protect incarcerated individuals’ rights to reproductive health care. An investigation by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that during the administration of former Sheriff Colleen M. O’Neill, a pregnant woman incarcerated at the jail was repeatedly denied abortion care and faced pressure from the jail’s medical staff to not go through with the procedure, subjecting her to unnecessary stress and endangering her health. The agreement will ensure all individuals incarcerated at the Jefferson County Correctional Facility will receive the abortion and medical care they have a right to under New York and federal laws.

“As New York’s attorney general, I will continue to defend everyone’s legal right to access the health care they need,” said Attorney General James. “Our laws make it clear that incarcerated individuals have a fundamental right to abortion care. Today’s agreement will ensure that right is protected and that no one is denied the right to make their own reproductive health care decisions.” 

The OAG launched an investigation into the Jefferson County Correctional Facility’s treatment of a pregnant woman who filed a complaint alleging her rights to medical and abortion care had been violated while she was incarcerated. The OAG’s investigation found that the medical director and health care staff at the jail refused to provide abortion care she had requested, canceled appointments twice without justification, and pressured her to cancel the procedure. According to notes taken by a social worker at the time, a sergeant at the jail told the woman’s sister that they had “no intention of following through with [her] procedure.”

The abortion procedure was completed nearly a month after the initial request, at greater risk to her health. The investigation further found the jail’s policies on reproductive health care access were lacking, and that staff members were not trained on incarcerated individuals’ rights to reproductive health care. 

New York state laws guarantee all New Yorkers a right to abortion care, and under both state and federal laws, all incarcerated individuals have the right to necessary and appropriate medical care, which includes reproductive health care. Under the agreement reached with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, the jail must adopt policies ensuring access to reproductive health care, including abortion, pregnancy screening, and pre/post-natal care, and provide training to staff on incarcerated individuals’ rights. The jail’s leadership must finalize these trainings and policies by December 1, 2023 with input from OAG, and inform all incarcerated individuals at the facility of their rights under the new policies. The OAG will monitor the facility for compliance for the next five years to ensure the rights of all incarcerated individuals to reproductive health care are protected.

The OAG would like to thank the complainant for coming forward as well as Sheriff Peter Barnett for his cooperation with this investigation and his work to improve medical care at the Jefferson County Correctional Facility.

This agreement is the latest action Attorney General James has taken to defend abortion access in New York and across the country. In June, she sued a militant anti-abortion group for invading clinics and blocking access to reproductive health care. She has repeatedly led multi-state coalitions to combat efforts to roll back abortion rights and support protecting Americans’ access to safe, legal abortions. Attorney General James challenged attempts to restrict access to reproductive healthcare services, such as the Trump administration's Title X rule, and submitted testimony urging passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act. At the state level, she has supported state legislation to provide funds to abortion providers in New York and called for an amendment to the state constitution to ensure the right to an abortion.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Attorney General James launched a pro bono legal hotline to provide legal support to patients and health care providers nationwide. New Yorkers are encouraged to call the New York abortion rights legal hotline at (212) 899-5567 for free legal information and resources about accessing abortion.

This matter was handled by Assistant Attorney General Lois Saldana of the Civil Rights Bureau, Assistant Attorney General Nia Stanford of the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office, Galen Sherwin, Special Counsel for Reproductive Justice, and Deanna Nelson, Assistant Attorney General in Charge of the Watertown Regional Office. The Civil Rights Bureau is led by Deputy Bureau Chief Travis England and the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office is led by Chief Tyler Nims, under the supervision of Meghan Faux, Chief Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice; the Regional Office is under the supervision of Jill Faber, Deputy Attorney General for Regional Affairs; all are under the supervision of First Chief Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.