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Thursday, October 21, 2021

‘Blood on their hands’: Protesters demand Alachua County Sheriff’s Office apology for newborn’s death hours after being born in jail

As the Sheriff’s Office set up barricades at its entrance, about 100 protesters took to the streets to protest the treatment of Erica Thompson and the death of her newborn daughter

Erica Thompson gave birth inside a jail cell at Alachua County Jail. Shortly after, baby Ava died. Dignity Power, GoDDsville and Florida Prisoner Solidarity organized the Justice for Heaven and Ava protest to bring awareness of what happened. Protestors blocked Northeast 39th Avenue right by the entrance to the jail. Many different chants were started throughout the protest, including "It is our duty to stand up and protect our people!" and "We have nothing to lose but our chains!"

With linked arms and voices chanting “there’s blood on their hands” and “Black women matter,” about 100 protesters overtook the entrance of Alachua County Jail on Aug. 21.

Residents held up signs that read “protect Black babies” and “jails kill” in solidarity with Erica Thompson, a 25-year-old Alachua County resident who lost her child Aug. 9 after her cries for help were ignored and she was forced to give birth inside her jail cell.

Protesters say the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office violated Florida’s Tammy Jackson Act, which ensures inmates in labor are immediately taken to a medical facility, given proper care and not placed in restrictive housing against their will. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in 2020 after Tammy Jackson was in labor for seven hours isolated in a Broward County jail.

Florida Prisoner Solidarity raised more than $8,000 through a GoFundMe page for her food, transportation and postpartum care.

Thompson, known as Heaven to her close family and friends, came to the protest but declined to comment.

Danielle Chanzes, a 28-year-old community organizer for the Florida Prisoner Solidarity and Dignity Power, shared Thompson’s story through a megaphone.

“We want to make sure that the community is paying attention,” Chanzes said. “We're not going to let this go. This happened right here in our community, and so we need to make sure that this gets attention until Heaven and Ava get the justice they deserve.”

Sarah Goff, a 44-year-old Alachua County resident, brought her two daughters to the protest. She said she joined the protest to physically show her support in hopes to inspire others to stand up for women’s rights.

“I think it’s important for my children to be the agents of change,” Goff said. “I’m honest with them, and I think that they understand these issues.”

At 5 p.m., marchers were met with barricades blocking the entrance of the Alachua County Jail. Deputies were waiting for them. Some officers told protesters they would not be allowed to visit the property again if they engaged with the protest. As a precautionary measure, one organizer passed out emergency contact forms in the event protesters were arrested.

Karine Dieuvil, a 21-year-old Dream Defenders organizing lead, said she expected the Sheriff’s office to react in this way.

“We wanted to be completely lawful in the way that we organized the process because we want to make sure that we’re ensuring the safety of our community members,” Dieuvil said. “The only reason we pushed off into the street was because we were forced to. There was nowhere else to go and despite that was property we were allowed to be on in order to exercise our freedom of speech.”

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After confronting ACSO officers at the entrance of the jail, protesters lined up in the street and halted traffic. Before police arrived, organizers blocked drivers from passing through and asked them to turn around.

Around 30 minutes into the protest, Gainesville Police Department officers showed up and assisted with moving traffic. GPD cars were later seen at both ends of the street blocking traffic and leading cars onto other roads so they would not encounter protesters.

Thompson was arrested for two active warrants for charges of a felony violation of probation and failure to appear on a traffic charge, according to an Alachua County Sheriff Facebook post. The post states Thompson went into premature labor and gave birth to her daughter Ava in the jail. ACSO transported her and her baby to the hospital where her baby died.

On Friday, ACSO held a press conference to defend Thompson’s arrest and handling of Ava’s birth. The office released photos to verify the timeline of events leading to and following Ava’s birth. ACSO also has a video not yet released to the public as of Friday of Thompson’s time in the jail — Lieutenant Brett Rhodenizer, the lead investigator with the ACSO’s office of professional standards, said the video is still a part of the department’s ongoing investigation into what happened.

Rhodenizer said the photos and video show that deputies checked on Thompson every 15 minutes, but she didn’t ask for help until she knocked on the door at 10:20 p.m.

Whether protesters were met with opposition didn’t matter to Tray Johns — a 46-year-old executive director of Dignity Power, an organization for incarcerated women that helped pass the Tammy Jackson Act.

Feeling her labor rights as an inmate were violated, Thompson sought advice from Johns, who felt responsible to ensure her case was heard and other women don’t suffer in future similar situations.

“She said, ‘I had my baby in the jail. Can you help me?’” Johns said. “‘Girl, I’m on my godd--- way!’ That’s what I said. And the next morning I got up out of my bed in Orlando, packed up my grandbabies and came up to Gainesville.”

Some, like Johns, remain unconvinced that ASCO should be absolved of responsibility. This demonstration was to see tangible change come from what happened to Thompson, Johns added.

“We're hoping that (Sheriff) Clovis (Watson) holds true to his word,” Johns said. “Instead of him protecting Black women, he doubled down and called her a liar. She’s a 25-year-old girl. And the undeniable thing: she was pregnant and had her baby in his jail. And the least he could’ve done was apologize.”

Contact Jiselle Lee at jlee@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @jiselle_lee.


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Jiselle Lee

Jiselle Lee is a second-year journalism student and the East Gainesville Reporter. This is her second semester at The Alligator, and she is excited to continue her work at the Metro desk. In her spare time, she enjoys eating her way around Gainesville.


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