The “Dignity for Incarcerated Women” Project: Mothering and Birthing

The incarceration of women, especially women of color, must be reviewed under human rights abuses and how this society perpetuates inter-generational trauma.  When we look to the individual and beyond media’s portrayal of incarcerated women, we see real people with real lives.  We find mothers.  

The numbers of mothers separated from their children is astounding.  How a system is implicated in imprinting disconnection is worth examining in and of itself.  However, when mothers birth shackled and many go without proper care before, during, and after the birth, systemic abuse is the problem.  Recently, Alicia Keys has brought this forth with a campaign to bring this to the forefront and end this violence.  

As this was brought to my attention just this week, it really got me thinking about how I, as a birth worker, have been aware of the history of injustices of incarcerated women birthing.  Back when I participated in working as a doula with women from jail, the only information online to be found was out of Cooke County and from work Sheila Kitzinger was doing.  There was so little public information to be found.  Now we know more.  Now it is illegal to handcuff women in labor in California.  Yet, many states continue to do so.  

Back when women would come in from the jail in the early 2000s I would be their doula.  The program had just started.  We were lucky to be able to attend them at all.   

In the early 2000s, California still handcuffed prisoners to the bed while laboring.  There was an art moving the handcuffs from a foot to a hand and back to a foot or going to the bathroom in between to help labor progress.  Sometimes women wouldn’t even be able to move their pillow due to positioning.  That was my job.  A female guard would be positioned at the foot of the bed watching.  Of course, the myth behind the cuffs was that someone had run at some point in labor.  I didn’t believe it.  I still don’t.  

Some I attended would wait until that specific guard they didn’t like or found abusive would finish their shift.  Another guard would come on and they would birth.  They felt safer.  Most I attended were only in for a few days: shoplifting for food or picking up a package for a boyfriend.  One got arrested because being homeless and pregnant was too difficult to care for oneself at the end of pregnancy. One particularly sticks with me as some births do.  She had 4 previous vaginal births and found out her baby would be taken away from her after the birth at 9 cm.  She stalled out.  Of course, she did.  She didn’t want to let her baby go.  They gave her an unnecessary cesarean.  I still don’t believe, with her back problem, she was completely numb during it even after they moved to general anesthesia.  I spoke up and was relieved of my duty of helping her as she would head to ICU due to anesthesia issues.  Residents seemed to get extra practice with interventions.  Was it worse that I was witnessing this as part of the system?  Yet I was grateful that a doula got to attend at all.

When my midwife was in prison in the 90s, she was at Frontera Prison in Corona where many women who were fire fighters (ones out there now), drug rehab and lifers were all put together.  Women would leave pregnant in labor and return empty-handed, leaking.  No official counseling.  Being there was punishment, after all.  Many didn’t know where their babies went, some sent them to the “Baby Lady” who took care of so many of their infants or children and would visit.  I still have my newsletters from my midwife about her experiences there.  I do know, in northern CA, there are some programs where women can keep their babies and nurse them.  

I remember I had 2 friends who ended up in jail the same day (another story).   They didn’t know each other, but had probably been at a birthday party for my daughter together in my neighborhood.  In any case, they ended up at the same table with a term pregnant mother who was crying, upset, fearing her experience of birth.  One of them said, “It’s going to be alright, my friend, she will be with you in labor.  She will rub your back and take care of you.”  The other woman said, “Yah, I have a friend who does that too.”  Then they realized I was the same friend.  I’m sure I didn’t go to that woman’s birth, but I can hope that another doula out there did.   And, at that time, however, she was probably handcuffed to the bed.

So many other stories and details I remember of women I sat with and their experiences.  It was real.  The women.  Their children.  It is different when you just hear about it happening.   

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