Cheree Byrd, 35, gave birth to an infant at the Onondaga County jail after carrying the infant for just 23 weeks. The infant was later pronounced dead at an area hospital. Credit: Provided by Renee Speed

It’s been almost three months since a woman at the Syracuse jail gave birth to a severely premature baby who later died.

The New York State Attorney General’s Office is still assessing whether it will investigate the death of Ayanna Byrd, who was born at 23 weeks in her mother Cheree Byrd’s jail cell in the Onondaga County Justice Center on Aug. 2. 

Women incarcerated with the infant’s mother said she told the jail’s staff for at least two days she was going into labor and in distress. 

According to the Attorney General, the case is officially “pending preliminary assessment,” meaning it’s still in a stage before a formal investigation starts. An investigation is only initiated if the AG’s office determines an officer or jail deputy could be held criminally responsible for the death. 

Nearly one-third of the police-involved deaths that have led to AG’s office review since September 2021 are considered to be “pending preliminary assessment,” according to the office’s latest annual report, released in October.

Just under half those are considered medical deaths, like Ayanna’s, the report said. 

While the case hasn’t moved into the formal investigation stage, AG’s officials have continued to check in with the family, said Renee Speed, Cheree Byrd’s mother. The AG’s office held a virtual meeting with Byrd and a lawyer the family retained, Speed said. 

Some key deadlines in the case, including the family’s deadline to initiate a lawsuit, are approaching. 

Byrd’s family has until Oct. 31 to submit a notice of claim, which will preserve their right to sue Onondaga County. Speed said the family has retained a lawyer but has not yet filed. 

Ayanna’s death is at least the third at the jail in the last year.

The county’s contract with NaphCare, a third-party, for-profit jail healthcare company, is coming to an end at the close of this year. County officials will have to decide whether they stick with NaphCare beyond this year. 

The case could also factor into the Onondaga County Sheriff’s race, where Esteban Gonzalez, the current head of the jail, is running for sheriff against Toby Shelley. 

Long-running problems with jail healthcare

Care at the county jail has been a long-running sore spot for the county, beginning with the death of a pregnant woman at the jail 12 years ago. 

In 2009, 21-year-old Chuniece Patterson died at the jail because of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. Patterson pleaded for help for 14 hours and was ignored by county-employed nurses. Her family sued the county and a judge awarded the family $385,000. 

At the end of 2010, the county started privatizing its jail healthcare. 

The county has contracted with three different companies for jail health care since 2011: 

  • 2011-2013: Correctional Medical Care 
  • 2014-2019 Correct Care Solutions, which later became known as Wellpath
  • 2020-present: NaphCare

The contract with NaphCare, which also goes by Proactive HealthCare Medicine) will cost more than $37 million over three years. 

“Everyone at Proactive HealthCare Medicine was deeply saddened by the events following the premature delivery of a baby within the jail,” a spokeswoman for the company said. “We are fully cooperating in the ongoing investigation into this matter.”

Naphcare has frequently been the subject of lawsuits in other places where it has provided health care. 

In Spokane earlier this summer, a federal jury awarded $27 million in damages to the family of a woman who died in the Spokane County jail. The company also settled a 2015 case in Portsmouth, Virginia for $3 million. 

King County in Washington reached a partial $2 million settlement with the family of a woman whose health declined for several days before she died. NaphCare was the health care provider at the King County jail. 

The county executive and Legislature will decide whether NaphCare will return to the jail, after the contract ends this year. Gonzalez, the chief custody deputy, and his opponent for sheriff Toby Shelley each said they would like to put the contract out to bid. 

“I know there are bigger companies out there with more resources than NaphCare has,” Gonzalez said. 

Issues with health care at the Onondaga County jail have persisted despite the change from county-employed nurses to privatized health care. 

The same year Patterson’s family won its lawsuit against the jail, 2014, Chanel Lakatosz died of opioid and alcohol withdrawal in a cell. The New York State Commission of Corrections found Correct Care, the jail’s health care provider at the time, failed to adequately supervise Lakatosz. Her family sued the county and was awarded $440,000. Correct Care footed the bill. 

Medical care and mental health are the top complaints at the jail and Jamesville Correctional Facility, according to the last publicly available annual report written by the county’s Justice Center Oversight Committee,a jail and correctional facility oversight board created in the wake of Patterson’s and other inmates’ deaths. 

In its 2020 report, medical care was the top complaint at the jail. Medical care and mental health care made up more than one-fifth of all complaints. 

The same is true of Jamesville Correctional Facility, where NaphCare also provides health care. In the 2020 report, more than one-quarter of all complaints are related to medical care and mental health. 

In the last year, there have been at least three deaths at the jail, including two suicides and Ayanna’s death. 

3 months later, no answers in sheriff’s office

Gonzalez, the county’s head of the jail and a sheriff’s office candidate, said three months later, he still cannot pin down all the details of what happened before Ayanna Byrd’s death. 

Gonzalez’s staff reviewed the incident, but he could not confirm key details about Cheree Byrd’s care, including:.

  • Whether Byrd was given a tampon for bleeding while she was pregnant at the jail 
  • For how many days Byrd was in distress at the jail 

Gonzalez said his previous comments reported by Syracuse.com earlier this month were not accurate: According to the report, Gonzalez said there was a consensus among jail and medical staff that Byrd had not received adequate care.

Gonzalez told Central Current this week that there was not necessarily consensus about the adequacy of care provided. 

“Consensus means … the majority of the group, and that would also be a little inaccurate because I didn’t see a show of hands or nodding their heads or anything like that,” Gonzalez said. 

Gonzalez said he saw the opposite reaction from staff when he asked about the level of care.

“Everybody got quiet,” he said. 

Neither the AG’s office nor the state’s Commission of Corrections has released a report outlining what happened to Cheree and Ayanna Byrd in the jail.  

‘Changed my daughter’s life forever’

Byrd is still struggling with her daughter’s death. She had previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which were exacerbated by the trauma of her infant’s death, her mother said. 

She lives in a residential behavioral health care facility in New Jersey.

For a short time after her infant’s death, Byrd was involuntarily committed, Speed said. Recently, she was moved to another residential facility that gave her more freedom. She is allowed to leave but only if she’s checked out by another person. 

“They’re trying to give her leeway to make her own decisions but as we talk today, this is not working, her making her own decisions,” Speed said. “It’s harmful to herself.”

Byrd sometimes asks if it’s possible to bring her infant back, Speed said.   

The family had Ayanna cremated in hopes of eventually holding a service, but doctors have so far advised against it because Byrd is still struggling. 

“This right here has changed my daughter’s life forever,” Speed said. 

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.