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Pregnant Black activist says she is 'ill' and facing premature birth behind bars

“I’m praying that I at least hold her until my 38th week,” Brittany Martin, who was arrested at a 2020 George Floyd protest, told NBC News in a phone call from prison.
Brittany Martin
Brittany Martin, second from left, confronts police while demonstrating in support of George Floyd in Sumter, S.C., on May 31, 2020.Micah Green / The Item via AP file

A pregnant Black activist who is serving a four-year prison sentence for comments she made to police during a racial justice protest said she is ill and fears she is at risk of giving birth prematurely because of the ongoing stress of being behind bars. 

Brittany Martin, 34, was convicted in May of breaching the peace in a high and aggravated manner at a 2020 protest over the death of George Floyd. Martin, who is seven-and-a-half months pregnant, said she’s experiencing back, hip and joint pain, along with premature contractions, which are becoming more painful as she nears her November due date. She was sent to the hospital Wednesday for painful contractions and was told by medical professionals that she was dehydrated and beginning to dilate, according to Martin’s sister, Whitney, who said she was on the phone with her as she was being escorted by an officer.  

“I’m praying that I at least hold her until my 38th week. I just want her to be fully developed,” Martin told NBC News in a phone call from Camille Graham Correctional Center in Columbia, South Carolina. 

Martin, who has already lost two children – one at 4 months from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) in 2008 and an 18-year-old this year to gun violence – said a premature birth would be especially devastating. The mother of four surviving children said her family seems to be in a constant state of mourning. 

“I’m not trying to go through another loss,” she said. “I would love to come home to my children. I just lost my baby. I just lost my oldest child this year. I haven’t had any peace.” 

Martin said her stay in prison and the death of her son have been extremely difficult also for her partner of eight years, Eric Kennedy, who is also the father of her unborn child.

“Since we have lost our oldest child this year he has lost his mind,” said Martin, who was set to marry Kennedy this year. “He has lost himself. He has lost the kids. He has lost me. He’s just not the man I’ve known him to be.” 

“Death does a lot to different families, and it’s been a year of tragedy for my family,” she said, adding that she just wants her family back together. 

Martin said the stress of being pregnant in prison without adequate prenatal care is taking a toll on her mental and physical health. According to inmate records, she has been sent to a medical facility 11 times since she was admitted to prison in May, with her most recent visit being on Wednesday. 

Martin also has alleged that she was physically assaulted by an officer, which left her with bruises and injuries to her eye. Chrysti Shain, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Corrections, said the prison is investigating Martin’s report of assault. However, prison officials said Martin’s eye injury came during a fight with inmates, for which she was disciplined.

Martin added that she has been repeatedly harassed by officers because of her dreadlocks, which is a prohibited hairstyle and a policy violation of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. She said this has resulted in her being put in solitary confinement. 

“This is my natural hair. Why would I cut my hair?” Martin said. “This is against my religious rights, my civil and my human rights.” 

Martin said she is a Hebrew Israelite, and her faith traditionally forbids people from cutting their hair or beards. 

Shain confirmed that Martin’s hairstyle goes against the inmate grooming policy. However, in an email, the spokesperson denied that Martin was put in solitary confinement.

“She previously has been in restricted housing for disciplinary convictions, but that still allows for out-of-cell time and showers,” Shain wrote. “She is currently single-celled and it’s my understanding that she prefers that.”

Martin said officers have tried to lodge what she calls “bogus” disciplinary actions and “lies” against her. Last weekend, Martin said an officer tried to restrict her from eating in the cafeteria because of her hairstyle. Martin said she told the officer, “Go on, call your team — I don’t care who you call. I’m going to feed my child.” 

Shain denied that the incident was related to Martin’s hair, saying that it was her behavior that caused her to be charged with “inciting and creating a disturbance.” Shain wrote in the email that a hearing would be scheduled, most likely next week. “This had nothing to do with her hair,” she wrote.  

According to Martin’s prison report, she has been disciplined for failing to obey orders and threatening to inflict harm on an employee. 

The violations led Martin to face disciplined detention, a loss of good-conduct time (which can reduce sentences for good behavior), access to the prison’s commissary and telephone privileges for 80 days. 

“Every time I look around, they are throwing a charge on me,” she said. “They’re trying to provoke me and break my peace in any kind of way.”

‘I’m ready to die for the Black’ 

Martin was arrested and charged in 2020 for breaching the peace in a high and aggravated manner after telling officers at a George Floyd protest in Sumter, South Carolina: “You better be ready to die for the blue. I’m ready to die for the Black.” She was sentenced to four years in prison. Martin said she was protesting for victims of police brutality, including Breonna Taylor and Floyd. Martin said she was also marching for her cousin-in-law Waltki Williams, who was shot 19 times by police in 2016, according to the local prosecutor. Williams, 35, ran from police after they responded to his girlfriend’s claim that he was going to shoot her, according to the Sumter Police Department. After a high-speed car chase, Williams was shot in his back by police. No charges were brought against the officers involved.

“I’m in here for love, love of people,” said Martin, who is also the founder of Mixed Sistaz United, a nonprofit community and advocacy organization. “When you go against the law enforcement … they like to agitate our protest … make it seem like we are the aggressors when we’re not. We’re just  grieving citizens.” 

Martin said her mental health in a separate cell, which she claims is solitary confinement, is “hanging on by a thread” because of the limited access to fresh air and contact with others. Martin said on one occasion she woke up distraught after allegedly hearing other inmates and prison guards yell after another inmate hanged herself in her cell. Prison officials deny Martin has been held in solitary confinement but confirmed a report of an inmate harming themself. The spokesperson said the inmate was sent to the hospital for treatment and released. Martin said she is still shaken up by some of the traumatic incidents she’s witnessed.

“I just couldn’t believe what I’ve seen that messed me up, and it messed all the women up in here,” she said. 

Martin said getting enough food while pregnant has also been a challenge. She said she receives only two meals a day on the weekends and is allowed three showers a week. A spokesperson for the prison said all pregnant inmates are allowed to have double portions at each meal. On the weekends, the spokesperson said, inmates are served brunch and dinner. 

“This is worse than being a murderer, you know, being a political prisoner,” Martin said.

Sybil Dione Rosado, her lawyer, said Martin is constantly being provoked while incarcerated. 

“They charged her with disobeying the direct order of an officer over and over again because she refuses to cut her hair,” Rosado said. “That is then added to the dialogue about how she’s not being a good girl because she won’t do what the system says, which is unjust.” 

On Sept. 12, a judge was scheduled to reconsider Martin’s sentence. Her attorney said she believed the sentence was extreme, considering that a “breaching the peace” crime is usually punishable by up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. Even with a criminal record — Martin was sentenced to seven years probation for willful intent to injure and leaving a crime scene in Iowa in 2019 — her attorneys hope for leniency because of her condition.  However, the hearing was canceled. 

“We were very disappointed,” Rosado said. “At this point, nothing has happened. We are still waiting for something to happen.”  

April Richardson, a state organizing manager for Black Voters Matter in South Carolina, a voting rights group, said the treatment of Martin is inhumane. 

“I think about her family, the fact that her children not only are concerned about their mom but also this baby girl,” Richardson said. “There are medical records to show that this is really compromising her pregnancy.” 

Martin is calling for accountability for her claims of mistreatment. Still, she said she hopes for a healthy pregnancy and said she sings and talks to her unborn daughter, Whitney, everyday. 

“I’m already attached to her. …  I pray with her all the time,” she said. “So, you know, I definitely want to see my blessing come… about.”