If you’ve ever been pregnant, you know how you rely on your favorite fetus-nourishing foods. You know how you cherish your collection of pillows and your comfortable bedding. You choose your shoes and clothing carefully for comfort and self-expression. You know how nice it is to get the kind of exercise that feels good – the pool at the Y, the yoga class, the long walks.
Incarcerated pregnant women miss all these things, and they miss their sweethearts and their older children too. When they go into labor, they are transported under guard to the nearest hospital. Most are shackled before, after, and sometimes during active labor. An armed corrections officer (CO) is present for every minute of labor, birth, and postpartum at the hospital. And then the new mothers go back to jail, alone. For all mothers, giving birth has the potential for being traumatic. But for incarcerated mothers, giving birth is inherently traumatic.
Each year in the U.S., 40,000 pregnant women are incarcerated.
The Prison Birth Project was created by two community-spirited young moms, Marianne Bullock and Lisa Andrews, to serve a small number of these mothers. We are a reproductive justice organization working to provide support, education, and advocacy with women and girls at the intersection of the criminal justice system and motherhood in our regional women’s jail.
The average incarcerated mom is likely to be inside for a nonviolent offense. She is much more likely than the average American to be poor, illiterate, mentally ill, sexually abused, addicted to drugs – and African American or Latina.
The unintended consequence of the failed “War on Drugs” is that now more than 1% of the adult population of the United States is incarcerated. It’s a huge industry. The number of women in jail has increased 832% in the past 10 years alone. (No, that’s not a typo.)
PBP offers advocacy, friendship, peer mentoring, and leadership development. We organize with incarcerated people around policy change. Our three main programs are childbirth education, doula services, and mothers’ groups.
Childbirth Education Classes, which we offer weekly, are a little tricky in jail because there are issues (like custody, or survival) that overshadow everything we ever thought was important to teach pregnant people. Sometimes the best “classes” are just being together.
Also, we never know for sure if we’re going to see a woman only once or if we’ll see her every week for her entire pregnancy. It doesn’t matter. Any respect and kindness – and food – that we offer isn’t wasted. If you’re interested, I’ve written a suggested class plan. You’ll also find some short handouts: what I think pregnant women need to know if you only meet them once, and a postpartum guide specifically for incarcerated moms.
Doula Care starts with prenatal visits. We try to help laboring moms feel more in control. We try to create a “bubble” that consists of the mom, her family (if they’re present), and her doula. We help CO’s and hospital staff create a friendly atmosphere, but we try to let the mom decide who gets to be in her bubble. It feels odd that we doulas are allowed to touch her, but her close family members are not. We try to channel their touch, and offer suggestions for how family can participate in ways that are allowed under Department of Corrections protocols.
Of all the women who have ever received PBP’s doula services and then been released, very few have returned to jail. We believe that doula care is stopping a cycle of violence and trauma to mother and baby during delivery, and helping women to have the tools to make healthier choices. Other prison birth programs report similar decreases in recidivism.
In addition to doula care, we offer full-spectrum reproductive care. This might include pregnancy options counseling. We serve as adoption support and as abortion doulas – as controversial as that is, we feel that all women deserve services that will lower their chances for further traumatization. We help women with custody issues and interactions with the Department of Children and Families. We offer support in the courtroom.
Mothers’ Groups are available for ALL mothers at the jail. So far, more than 75 moms have participated in “Mothers Among Us,” PBP’s peer-led support group. MAU offers a safe place to be real and honest about the full spectrum of mothering experiences. Both participants and facilitators are reclaiming their resiliency and strengthening their core selves.
PBP is dedicated to having incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women fill at least half of our positions of leadership. We are training women to lead MAU groups. We are exploring offering childbirth educator and doula trainings inside. We are hoping that others will offer similar services at jails, prisons, and re-entry programs nationwide. An article in the upcoming issue of Midwifery Today will include some suggestions for those of you who wish to serve these families in your own communities.