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Pregnant Prisoners: Enduring Labor Behind Bars

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Gina Kaysen Fernandes: Incarcerated mothers are the most demonized women in our society. They are social pariahs, stigmatized for committing crimes that fuel the notion of "the bad mother." Every year, hundreds of women are sentenced to an even worse fate ... serving time as a pregnant prisoner. For many expectant mothers locked up in some state-run prisons, their experience is nothing short of torture.

Mandi and Gabriel (3 days old), 2008. (c) C. Hanna-Truscott

Pregnant women behind bars are typically deprived of prenatal care and adequate nutrition because prisons are not legally obligated to provide them. Medium and maximum-security prisons across the nation routinely use belly shackles to transport pregnant prisoners to other facilities or to the hospital. Once they go into labor, many of these women are chained to their hospital beds, even if they're undergoing a Cesarean section.

The United Nations has taken a stand against the practice, declaring the use of restraints during labor a human rights violation. The shackling of inmates in labor is also condemned by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as an unnecessary risk to a woman's health. "I had shackles on up until the baby was coming out and then they took them off for me to push. It was unbelievable. Like I was going to go anywhere," stated Samantha Luther, who gave birth to a son in 2005 while incarcerated in Wisconsin.

"It's unthinkable in a civilized society," says Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a criminal justice advocacy group that's tracking and working to reform the treatment of mothers in prison. "There's no respect for the sacredness of pregnancy and giving birth," says Malika. Her organization fought to end routine shackling of pregnant women in federal prisons, but the practice is still widespread in most state-run facilities.

New York recently passed an anti-shackling law that bans restraints on inmates giving birth, except when needed to keep the woman from hurting herself, medical staff, or correctional officers. Illinois, California, Vermont, and New Mexico have similar laws on the books. In Texas, the law goes even further by banning the shackling of girls in state detention centers.

Opponents of anti-shackling efforts cite security concerns as justification for the restraints, arguing that inmates will use the pregnancy and birth as an opportunity to escape. "No one ever told me I was going to be shackled. I felt like I was an animal. I kept on thinking, where do they think I am going to run to?" stated Michelle, who was sentenced to 42 months at the Ohio Reformatory for Women for a probation violation linked to a larceny offense.

"It's absolutely inhumane. These are not hardened criminals," says Malika, who points out that most women and mothers who are in prison were convicted of non-violent drug offenses and suffer from substance abuse problems. The war on drugs and the introduction of mandatory sentencing caused the female prison population to balloon 432 percent over the past 25 years, according to a report by the Department of Justice. The DOJ's "Survey of State Prison Inmates" reports that six percent of women entered prison pregnant. Nearly half of the women in our nation's jails and prisons reported being physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment.

The most painful part of the birthing experience is not physical for these mothers. Rather, it's the emotional distress of not bonding with their newborns. The inmate gets 12 hours at most with her infant before the baby is passed on to a family member or the foster care system. A Polaroid photo may be the only memento she gets to keep of her child.

There are a fortunate few who have access to a more compassionate prison experience. Washington Corrections Center for Women, or WCCW, located in Gig Harbor, WA, houses mothers and their newborns in a unique Residential Parenting Program. The center is the only one of its kind in the nation that combines a childhood development program with residential living.

"For a lot of these moms, it's not their first pregnancy or first child, but their first time being a parent," says Jo Ader of the Puget Sound Educational Service Department. She works with the prison's infants and toddlers through the Early Head Start program. The goal is to stop the cycle of violence so these children won't follow in their mother's footsteps. "We give them tools to be better parents," says Katrina Avent, a unit supervisor at the facility. The mothers have access to college courses with the convenience of an on-site daycare. The center opened ten years ago to "create a loving environment in a clean and sober atmosphere," says Katrina.

It appears that the skills these mothers learn on the inside are helping them readjust to life in society after their release. The rate of recidivism is 43 percent for female prisoners at WCCW, but only 12 percent of the mothers in the Residential Parenting Program end up back behind bars. The Residential Parenting Program is limited to "model inmates" who have less than three years remaining on their sentence and have children under 30 months old. The residence currently houses 13 mothers and 14 babies, which includes a set of twins.

Another perk for pregnant women at the prison is access to a volunteer doula program. A non-profit group called The Birth Attendants offers monthly prenatal care, labor and delivery assistance, postpartum services, and family planning education courses.

The doula services are available to all pregnant inmates, as well as those in maximum security. "We're here to support people, whatever their choice is," says Zimryah Barnes, a program coordinator and volunteer doula. Zimryah says she has witnessed shackled inmates giving birth, and believes it's a huge hindrance to the birthing process. "Being able to know you have the freedom to move can affect labor. They lose their self-confidence and start to doubt themselves." The doulas assist with up to seven births a month at the tightly secured hospital that contracts with the prison. "I've never seen a case of a pregnant woman trying to escape during transport or labor and delivery," said Zimryah.

Pregnant prisoners are often emotionally damaged from violence, trauma, or drugs. Doulas like Zimryah offer kindness and unwavering support during one of life's most difficult experiences. "Just because somebody made a choice that led them to living a portion of their lives in prison doesn't make them any less of a human being."

next: Misunderstanding Allegedly Led New Jersey Mom to Stab Son, Try Suicide
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