BANGOR, Maine — A woman from the African nation of Cameroon could give birth in a federal prison because she is HIV-positive.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock last month sentenced Quinta Layin Tuleh, 28, to 238 days in federal prison for having fake documents. Woodcock said the sentence would ensure that Tuleh’s baby, due Aug. 29, has a good chance of being born free of the AIDS virus.
Both the federal prosecutor and the defense attorney urged the judge to sentence Tuleh to 114 days, or time served, according to a transcript of the sentencing hearing. Woodcock instead ignored the federal sentencing guidelines and calculated her sentence to coincide with her due date.
Federal prosecutors have appealed the sentence to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. The court has agreed to deal with the case on an expedited schedule and could hear oral arguments in late July.
Woodcock told Tuleh at her sentencing on May 14 in U.S. District Court that he was not imposing the longer prison term to punish her further but to protect her unborn child. He said that the defendant was more likely to receive medical treatment and follow a drug regimen in federal prison than out on her own or in the custody of immigration officials.
The judge also said that his decision was based entirely on her HIV status. If Tuleh were pregnant but not infected with the AIDS virus, he would have sentenced her to time served.
The Maine Civil Liberties Union criticized Woodcock’s decision when informed of it by the Bangor Daily News.
“We are enormously sympathetic to the desire to ensure that Ms. Tuleh receives adequate health care, including prenatal care,” Zachary Heiden, legal director for the MCLU, said in an e-mail. “Federal immigration law has developed in truly arbitrary and punitive ways. Here, even a federal judge could not get assurances that Ms. Tuleh would not be deported before the end of her pregnancy. He could not get assurances she would not have her medical care arbitrarily cut off. That is wrong.
“Judges cannot lock a woman up simply because she is sick and pregnant,” he said. “Judges have enormous discretion in imposing sentences, and that is appropriate. But jailing someone is punishment — it is depriving them of liberty. That deprivation has to be justified, and illness or pregnancy is not justification for imprisonment.”
If Tuleh’s child were to be born in this country, he or she would be a U.S. citizen. But an infant most likely would be deported along with his or her mother, Beth Stickney of the Immigration Legal Advocacy Project in Portland, said last week when informed of Tuleh’s case. Stickney said that under law, the child could apply to return to the U.S. when he or she became an adult.
Tuleh arrived in the United States from Cameroon in September, according to court documents. She lived in Maryland until early January, when she moved to Presque Isle to provide child care services for a local family. Less than three weeks after arriving in Presque Isle, Tuleh quit in a dispute with her employer, who was not identified in court documents.
On Jan. 21, Tuleh was arrested at the Presque Isle airport. Counterfeit Social Security and employment documentation cards were found in her luggage. She was charged with possession of false immigration documents.
At her first court appearance, U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret Kravchuk ordered that she be held without bail pending the outcome of her case. Tuleh waived indictment and pleaded guilty Jan. 26.
Tuleh faced up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and mandatory deportation. Under the prevailing federal sentencing guidelines, Tuleh’s recommended sentence was between zero and six months.
In many similar cases, defendants have been sentenced to time served, then turned over to immigration officials for deportation.
At the time of her arrest, Tuleh did not know she was pregnant or that she was HIV-positive, according to her attorney, Matthew Erickson of Brewer. Erickson said last week that Tuleh had a boyfriend in Maryland and had expressed an interest in returning there. She also intended to apply for asylum in the U.S. after she completed her sentence, he said.
Erickson had arranged for her to stay in Portland and receive care at the Frannie Peabody Center, which provides services for HIV-positive residents, while her immigration case proceeded. Woodcock rejected that recommendation, according to court documents, to ensure that Tuleh would receive proper medical care.
In sentencing Tuleh, Woodcock said that the law required he take into account a defendant’s medical condition in fashioning a sentence. Although a defendant’s medical condition most often is used to lower a sentence, the judge found that there was nothing in the federal sentencing guidelines to prevent him from imposing a sentence longer than the guidelines recommended because of Tuleh’s HIV status.
“My obligation is to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant,” he said at Tuleh’s sentencing, “and that public, it seems to me at this point, should likely include that child she’s carrying. I don’t think that the transfer of HIV to an unborn child is a crime technically under the law, but it is as direct and as likely as an ongoing assault.
“If I had — if I were to know conclusively that upon release from imprisonment a defendant was going to assault another person,” Woodcock said, “I would act in a fashion to prevent that, and similar to an assault, causing grievous injury to a wholly innocent person. And so I think I have the obligation to do what I can to protect that person, when that person is born, from permanent and ongoing harm.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Lowell objected to Woodcock’s decision. Lowell said Tuleh’s sentence set a precedent that “could affect the many other sorts of cases that come before this court in which defendants have serious medical conditions.”
“In the end, Bureau of Prisons custody is designed to incarcerate,” Lowell told Woodcock at the sentencing hearing. “Incarceration is mostly designed for the purpose of punishment, deterrence and community protection. The Bureau of Prisons is not well-designed to accomplish necessarily the end of providing medical care to a defendant and her unborn child.”
Information about where Tuleh is serving her sentence was not available Tuesday. The inmate locator on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ Web site stated that she was “in transit.”