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Virginia woman whose baby died in custody sues Stafford jail

A sign that reads Rappahannock Regional Jail stands at the entrance of the jail
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
The Rappahannock Regional Jail is seen on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 in Stafford County, Virginia.

Jemika Johnson's attorneys say the son she had in solitary confinement died due to staff's negligence.

Editor's note: This article contains graphic descriptions of childbirth and infant death.

About 2 a.m. on Aug. 3, 2021, Jemika Johnson went into labor.

Johnson, who had a history of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was alone in an isolation cell at Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford County.

Around five hours later, a guard found Jackson and her newborn child in a pool of blood, according to filings by Jackon’s attorneys in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia. Both mother and child were taken to a hospital, where the infant was pronounced dead.

Advocates described the death as the latest preventable tragedy in what they allege to be a pattern of medical malpractice in Virginia’s jails.

Jail deaths nearly doubled from 2020 to 77 in 2021 — the last year the state published statistics. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role, suicides more than doubled and unexplained deaths also rose.

Medical treatment at Rappahannock Regional Jail — or alleged lack thereof — has been the subject of several lawsuits.

In one case, settled out of federal court for an undisclosed amount last month, an incarcerated man at the facility asked to see a doctor to treat his severe headaches. His request was denied; he subsequently died of a stroke.

In other legal filings cited by Jackson’s attorneys, people incarcerated at RRJ alleged the staff denied one person treatment for severe depression and PTSD, failed to provide another with previously prescribed psychiatric medication and refused a third access to treatment for an autoimmune disease.

Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist at the ACLU of Virginia, argued the problems are especially acute at regional jails, which are run collaboratively by local governments. Unlike local jails specific to a single municipality, these facilities are run by unelected officials. And because localities don’t want to spend taxpayer dollars on jails, Weneta said, wardens are incentivized — sometimes directly, through salary bonuses — to keep costs low and revenue high.

Weneta reiterated advocates’ call for a formal mechanism to oversee Virginia’s jails, such as extending the purview of a newly-passed ombudsman’s office to oversee jails in addition to state prisons.

“It just serves as one of the most tragic illustrations of how badly Virginia facilities need oversight for the protection of everyone: staff, incarcerated people and now their children within them,” Weneta said.

Rappahannock Regional Jail vehicle is seen
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
An RRJ van is seen on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 at Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, Virginia.

Johnson is being represented by Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic in the suit. Her complaint alleges violations of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other statutes, and seeks damages to be awarded by a jury. Defendants include the regional jail authority, a handful of medical and jail staff, the medical contractor hired by the facility and the regional mental health authority.

In court filings the Rappahannock Regional Jail Authority acknowledged the baby’s death, but denied all of Johnson’s allegations regarding negligent treatment and lack of medical attention. The RRJA, which is represented by Richmond law firm Moran Reeves Conn, filed motions to dismiss the case in November.

The defendants are required to file responses to Johnson’s amended complaint by Jan. 5.

Baby Boy Johnson

Johnson was about four months pregnant when she arrived at the jail on May 19, 2021. She was being detained in pretrial detention for a probation violation.

Johnson was a familiar face to some of the staff after multiple stays at the facility, according to the lawsuit. During one prior period, from November 2019 to February 2020, Johnson was transferred to Western State Hospital in Staunton to treat acute effects of her schizophrenia, including refusing medicine, disorganized speech and suicidal ideation.

But when Johnson returned to RRJ in May 2021, the lawsuit alleges medical and jail staff failed to provide medication that would stabilize her. Instead, they “engaged in a cycle of punishing and isolating Ms. Johnson, while allowing her mental and physical health, and that of her unborn baby, to dangerously deteriorate,” her complaint alleges.

The lawsuit alleges a pattern of disregarding Johnson’s regular petitions for help and failing to treat unusual behavior. For example, a jail nurse reported on July 9, 2021, that Johnson was “uncooperative, disheveled, mute. Paranoid. Insight and judgment limited.”

The night of Aug. 2 leading to Aug. 3, the lawsuit says Johnson began giving birth. It alleges she regularly requested help on the intercom that connected her to staff and was screaming throughout the night.

“Despite the ten alleged checks on Ms. Johnson, performed by four different officers between 02:00 and 07:00 AM, Ms. Johnson remained alone in her cell with her premature newborn child, for at least five hours without any medical assistance,” the lawsuit alleges.

Phyllis Harris, Johnson’s aunt, said she first learned of Johnson’s pregnancy and her ordeal after she got a call from her niece.

“She said, ‘That whole time, Aunt Phyllis, that whole night, that umbilical cord was attached to me,’” Harris said. “And the baby came out and she said, ‘The baby opened their eyes and looked at me.’ And she said, ‘I didn't know what to do.’”

An autopsy determined the baby had acute chorioamnionitis and funisitis, conditions that the lawsuit alleges would have been easily treated with antibiotics.

Johnson was later taken back to Western State Hospital, where she was given antipsychotic medication. The hospital’s medical team documented that Johnson’s psychosis was “exacerbated by her traumatic experience giving birth alone and the death of her infant child.”

Harris said Johnson is currently living independently and working as a cashier, aided by medication. But Harris is outraged at what her niece went through.

“Dogs get treated better than they treated my niece,” Harris said.

Since the nocturnal death was of the secretly-born infant and not the inmate mother, the Board then determined it had no authority to conduct an investigation.
Geoff Garner, executive director of the Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails


The episode did not result in any criminal charges. The Stafford County Sheriff’s Office investigated the episode, according to Maj. C. Shawn Kimmitz.

“The information was presented to our Commonwealth Attorney's Office, which declined prosecution,” Kimmitz said in an email.

Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. RRJ Superintendent Col. Kevin Hudson and RRJA Board Chairperson Chris Giles also declined to comment.

The Virginia Board of Local and Regional Jails, which has the authority to investigate jail deaths, did not investigate the infant’s death. The board’s executive director, Geoff Garner, said the board was informed of the incident — but argued it lacked legal authority to investigate.

“The preliminary information indicated this was an incident of an inmate having a secret birth in her cell in the middle of the night,” Garner said in an email. “Since the nocturnal death was of the secretly-born infant and not the inmate mother, the Board then determined it had no authority to conduct an investigation.”

In a statement conveyed by her attorneys, Johnson said she felt “very sad and traumatized” by what had happened to her.

“I didn’t want them to get away with what happened,” Johnson said. “I think they thought it was funny and they’d get away with that, and I just wanted to bring it to attention that what they did was wrong.”

Corrected: December 28, 2023 at 9:03 AM EST
Dec. 28, 2023: The photo captions in this article have been updated.
Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.