Chelsea Stewart waited on the bench of a north Alabama court in early 2019, holding tight to the big news she hoped might get her out of trouble.
Gadsden police had caught Stewart, then 20 years old, smoking marijuana outside her house a month earlier. It was the first time she’d been arrested, so the prosecutor offered a deal.
In exchange for testing clean in a series of random drug screens, Stewart's charges would be dropped and she’d avoid jail. But less than two weeks later, at her first screening, the officer who collected her urine delivered bad news: She tested positive for marijuana.
“I said, ‘Well yeah, there hasn’t been enough time for me to get it out of my system,’” Stewart recalled.
In court, Stewart was still hopeful. She attempted to sway the prosecutor by telling her about all the good things going on in her life. Then the big reveal: “I told them that I was pregnant, thinking it would help me,” Stewart recalled.
“I think, OK, I’ll tell them I work for the country club. I have a great job,” Stewart told AL.com. “I’m getting into bartending, and now I’m pregnant. Maybe they’ll feel sorry for me. I was just really unaware of how the system worked, and the way things were.”
The prosecutor silently jotted a couple words down on a sticky note and passed it to the judge, Stewart said. The judge sent her to jail for five days for failing the drug test.
Six years before her arrest, Etowah County officials had embarked on an unprecedented crackdown on pregnant drug users. Alabama lawmakers in 2006 created the chemical endangerment law to protect children from meth lab hazards, but Etowah and a handful of other counties apply the law to alleged hazards in the womb from drug use.
For smoking marijuana, Stewart found that she had become something both disgraceful and common: another pregnant woman headed for jail in Etowah County.
While Alabama leads the nation in arrests of pregnant drug users, Etowah County, which has about 100,000 residents and is located in the hills of the northern part of the state, stands apart. No county does more to locate, jail and keep new mothers behind bars.
An AL.com analysis of Alabama court records and interviews with local officials, lawyers, advocates and the women who have been arrested revealed that Etowah County officials specifically focus on pregnant women.
Between 2015 and 2023, the county arrested 257 pregnant women and new moms — that’s more per capita than any other large county in Alabama. The women were charged with chemical endangerment.
AL.com found that, unlike other counties, Etowah mainly prosecutes mothers. Police in Alabama can arrest men and women for having drugs in the home or car near a child. According to court records, on average, 68% of chemical endangerment arrests in each large county were of women. But that’s not the case in Etowah, where 93% of chemical endangerment arrests from 2015 to 2023 involved women.
During that time, three-quarters of the people arrested for chemical endangerment in Etowah County didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer. Facing up to 10 years in prison, the maximum sentence provided the baby is born healthy, most plead into diversion programs or probation, where they spend months or years reporting to judges or probation officers.
AL.com also found Etowah County, unlike other Alabama counties, singled out pregnant women for special bond conditions, holding them in jail for months on low-level drug charges that would ordinarily lead to a small bond and release. Pregnant women instead had to secure and pay for a spot in rehab in order to leave jail.
That practice changed after reporting in AL.com last fall, and court officials no longer automatically send chemical endangerment defendants to jail to wait for rehab beds.
Etowah County officials did not respond to emails or calls seeking comment.
Alabama's chemical endangerment law makes it illegal to knowingly expose or permit a child to ingest illegal drugs. Etowah prosecutors have said they are protecting the fetus from potential exposure to drugs by holding mothers in jail.
“There’s been no greater proponent of this theory than officials in Etowah County,” said Emma Roth, a lawyer for Pregnancy Justice, an organization that opposes laws that criminalize conduct during pregnancy. Roth has been handling several cases in Etowah County.
Researchers at Pregnancy Justice have been tracking prosecutions of pregnant women for decades, and compiled a landmark report in 2013 that found hundreds of criminal cases. The organization is in the process of updating that report. A spokesman for the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a list of emailed questions, and a reporter was turned away when she tried to reach the lead investigator at department headquarters.
“They are the most zealous prosecutors and sheriff’s department we have encountered anywhere across the country,” Roth said, “and the data backs that up.”
At first, Stewart thought she would be held in the Etowah County Jail for five days. Then she learned she had been charged with chemical endangerment of a child for exposing her fetus to marijuana. In Etowah County, until September 2022, that meant Stewart couldn’t leave jail unless she entered rehab and posted a $10,000 bond in cash.
The investigator in Stewart’s case, Brandi Fuller, has been involved in almost all of the county’s chemical endangerment arrests. Fuller, a detective in the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department, was listed as a witness or arresting officer in 222 out of 257 arrests of pregnant women since 2013, according to court records.
Fuller did not respond to calls, emails or efforts to reach her through her attorney or to speak to her in person for this article.
Fuller joined the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office as a dispatcher in 2005 and worked her way up to deputy in 2013. Two years later, officials promoted her to investigator in the domestic violence unit, according to her personnel file.
“She’s been involved in most, if not all, of these cases of chemical endangerment in Etowah County and kind of is the ringleader on making these cases,” said Martin Weinberg, a lawyer based in Birmingham.
Weinberg represents 44-year-old Stacey Freeman, who in November sued Fuller and Etowah County Sheriff Jonathan Horton for defamation, false imprisonment and negligence. According to her lawsuit, Freeman was arrested on a warrant for chemical endangerment stemming from alleged drug use during pregnancy, after an investigation by the state’s Department of Human Resources.
“On January 21, 2022, a DHR petition was filed to remove Freeman’s children from her home. The basis upon which DHR sought removal was Freeman’s alleged drug use," according to the lawsuit. “On January 26, 2022, the two (2) children were removed from Freeman’s home.” One of the children “told DHR that Freeman was pregnant.”
But Freeman was not pregnant, according to her lawsuit. She spent 36 hours in jail before she received a test that proved it.
After she got out, the investigator warned Freeman she still could face consequences if she got pregnant, according to the complaint: “Fuller told Freeman to wear a condom if she planned to have sex.”
In a response to the lawsuit, Fuller denied she said that. She and Sheriff Horton said they did not falsely imprison Freeman or violate her civil rights. Neither the sheriff’s office nor Fuller responded to calls or emails requesting comment on the lawsuit.
Nor did District Attorney Jody Willoughby. But Willoughby late last year did explain the county’s position on chemical endangerment arrests. At the time, local attorneys and Pregnancy Justice were fighting the county's practice of holding women in jail for weeks or months.
“For us to do nothing, would make us an enabler of a deadly addiction, complicit in the abuse of a child, and ultimately lead to the death of a mother,” Willoughby wrote in a statement. “We chose to act.”
The charges against Freeman were dropped on Feb. 22, 2022. The civil suit remains active in Etowah County Circuit Court.
After Stewart’s arrest, a news article quoted Fuller saying Stewart had knowingly used marijuana at almost three months gestation. That didn’t sound right to Stewart, who said she’d stopped smoking before she found out about her pregnancy and couldn’t have been more than six weeks along.
Although the chemical endangerment law says that people must have “knowingly” exposed a child to drugs, Stewart is not the only woman who said she was charged for use that happened before she knew she was pregnant.
Ashley Banks, who was also arrested and jailed for marijuana use during pregnancy, made the argument in a petition for release.
“Ms. Banks did not smoke marijuana after receiving confirmation from Women’s Health Partners that she was pregnant,” the petition said. “Moreover, the warrant also incorrectly states that Ms. Banks was four months pregnant at the time of arrest in May 2022. Ms. Banks is four months pregnant now in late August 2022. At the time of her arrest, she was only six weeks pregnant.”
Amanda Bradley, another woman jailed for chemical endangerment in Etowah County, said she encountered several women in rehab who were arrested for using before they knew they were pregnant.
“They never even got the chance to quit using before they were arrested,” she told AL.com.
The Etowah County Jail towers over downtown Gadsden. It was designed with extra space for immigration detainees and had a contract for years with the federal government that provided much-needed jobs.
By 2019, the jail had also become a set. Producers were in the middle of shooting “60 Days In,” an A&E reality show where six civilians pretend to be prisoners and see who can last, while also spotting problems within the jail.
Producers picked Etowah County Jail because of its dysfunction, according to promos and articles about the series. It was “one of the worst facilities” in the show’s first six seasons, according to the network.
“I knew when I came into office this jail had a lot of problems, but it was pretty extreme,” Sheriff Horton himself said in a November 2019 interview with AL.com about the TV show.
The show, according to women in the jail at the time, fueled suspicions and tensions, as they tried to figure out who was undercover and who might report on contraband or other problems. Stewart's stay overlapped with the production for “60 Days In.”
The show captured correctional officers using pepper spray to subdue detainees and widespread reports of drugs smuggled into the facility. In episodes on A&E, there were fights between prisoners and attacks on corrections officers. In one incident, trusties assigned to distribute meals poured bleach on a woman jailed for chemical endangerment who had clashed with a guard.
A woman named Ashley who was undercover marveled at the size of the women's pod at the Etowah County Jail, which often seemed crowded and chaotic. “So many more females than ‘60 Days In’ has ever had before,” she said in Episode One. “Like, it's just massive.”
While Stewart was locked up, she said she witnessed fights and drug use. She said she saw other women snorting powders and sharing needles. Eight detainees jumped a woman after she returned from a doctor’s appointment and failed to procure drugs as promised, Stewart recalled as she read from her journal.
“They went into her room and shanked her,” Stewart told AL.com. “There was blood coming under the door, and I was banging on the door saying she needs help.”
Another night, chaos erupted in the unit. A SWAT team came in with guns that fired non-lethal balls, releasing clouds of pepper spray, she recalled. She said one of the balls rolled into Stewart’s cell as the door closed and locked behind her.
“I got stuck in a room with an exploding pepper spray bomb,” Stewart said. “My eyes are burning. The back of my throat is burning. I started having my first panic attack.”
The Etowah County Sheriff's Office did not respond to questions about the incident.
Due to the positive test for marijuana, Stewart spent 30 days in jail before she agreed to enroll in drug court.
For years, Etowah County adopted policies that kept pregnant women charged with chemical endangerment in jail far longer than other people who faced similar charges. The pregnant and postpartum women couldn’t leave until they entered an inpatient drug rehab program approved by the court, even if there was little evidence they needed treatment for addiction.
In a hearing last year, Assistant District Attorney Carol Griffith said the policy was designed for mothers.
“This is an individual who desperately needs the help we are offering here today,” she said about a woman who had been jailed for months after the court denied her release on bond.
In his statement last year, Willoughby stood by the county’s policy.
“My office has certainly supported the decision of our courts to impose conditions that will assist in protection of the particular child’s life,” Willoughby wrote. “I have not met anyone involved in this process that didn’t want to see the safety of the child achieved, and reunification of the child with the mother.”
However, several women locked up for months in Etowah County described unsanitary and unsafe conditions. In one case, a pregnant woman jailed for chemical endangerment gave birth in the shower.
“I delivered my own son and had to beg for help,” Ashley Caswell told AL.com.
A spokesman for the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to questions about the episode.
The ACLU and Pregnancy Justice have launched a joint investigation into the prenatal care available inside the jail.
After reporting by AL.com on the number of pregnant women being held in jail, Etowah County officials stopped automatically requiring rehab and $10,000 cash bonds last year. But Roth said the courts and law enforcement still keep many pregnant women in jail for months if they fail a drug test or miss a hearing.
Once out, many end up in diversion programs. The two main programs in Etowah County are drug court and pretrial diversion, and both require participants to pass random drug tests, attend regular hearings and pay fees. Pretrial diversion programs are designed for first-time defendants and tend to be shorter and less intensive, but require higher up-front fees than drug court.
People who successfully complete those programs have their charges dismissed, but if they fail a drug test or miss a hearing, they can end up in jail or prison.
Officials who support the prosecution of pregnant and postpartum women often frame it as an opportunity to get them into treatment. At a 2013 press conference to announce criminal prosecutions in Etowah County, former District Attorney Jimmie Harp said he hoped mothers would get help for addiction.
“We all have the same goal,” Harp said. “We want to make sure that children born in this county are born to families that are clean and drug-free.”
Wendy Bach, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, has studied the cases of women prosecuted between 2014 and 2016 under that state’s fetal assault law. She said prosecutors in rural, eastern Tennessee counties said they needed the law, and the arrests, to attract investments in drug rehabilitation.
Instead, women began to avoid medical care because they were afraid of arrest, and hospitals saw increases in drug-exposed newborns and out-of-hospital births. One woman had her baby on the side of a highway after she tried to leave the state to give birth.
“There’s no data that suggests that solutions that lock people up result in healthier kids,” Bach said.
Stewart, left searching for a rehab due to her marijuana arrest, eventually ended up at a court-ordered sober home in rural Eastaboga, a place called Real Life Recovery that is not licensed by the Alabama Department of Mental Health. Rehabs are licensed by the state, but sober homes — residences for people in recovery that don't offer treatment — are not.
Stewart found a job as a server and stayed on top of her fees. But others in the sober house still struggling with addiction seemed to have difficulty keeping up with payments. If they couldn’t pay, they would end up back in jail. The staff of Real Life Recovery did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment.
She graduated from the program in three months and transferred into drug court. That allowed her to move home and remain free while taking random drug tests and checking in at court. She finally began enjoying her pregnancy and set up a nursery.
She remained stressed by a warning from police. She said an officer told her if anything happened during the pregnancy — if her daughter was born sick or premature, her charges could be upgraded.
The sentence for chemical endangerment in cases of miscarriage or stillbirth can be as long as 99 years. Women in Alabama have been found guilty even in cases with no clear causal link between drug use and the death of a fetus.
In September 2019, Stewart traveled across county lines to deliver her healthy and full-term little girl. She hoped she could avoid legal scrutiny by leaving Etowah County. For months afterward, she lugged the baby to drug court every month to pay fines. Stewart learned to juggle the demands of motherhood with required 12-step meetings and her work.
Stewart’s charges have been dismissed and erased, and her mugshot no longer appears when you search her name.
“My daughter just turned three, and I finally feel like I’m moving on with my life,” she said. “I wish I had the funds; I would definitely leave the state.”
AL.com reporter Ramsey Archibald contributed to this report.