Photo by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott, CNM: www.protectivecustody.org
"I’ve gone through a lot being here in prison. Early on when I first got here, I worried about a lot of things. One of them was, ‘Am I going to get to keep my baby?’"In the mid-1990s, I first heard about a new program at our state women’s prison that would allow non-violent, incarcerated pregnant women to maintain custody of their infants while serving short prison sentences. I was intrigued, never having given much thought to women convicts, let alone pregnant ones. Healthy maternal-infant attachment could be promoted during this critical time in a protective, supportive, and safe environment.
“Being in the Residential Parenting Program has just given me a second chance, you know? I didn’t really have a place to send my baby to. I was blessed to be able to keep my baby here and it just shows me that I have a second chance.”The program began in 1999, and in 2003, I asked if I could do a portrait photography project about the prison nursery. Even with my professional background as a nurse-midwife and expertise in child sexual abuse evaluations, I was surprised that administrators and mothers welcomed me. Prison is a closed, off-limits, censored, and locked-up environment. Prisoners are unseen, disenfranchised, and voiceless.
“Nobody I knew was with me when I gave birth. Nobody. But, gosh, the one officer was so great. I can’t think of her name…but, she, my gosh! I was leaning over the officer. I was slobbering, crying, and she didn’t care about her uniform. I wish I could think of her name so I could thank her.”When I began this work, I expected to find the unit crawling with researchers interested in promoting maternal-infant health in such a vulnerable population and was aghast at the paucity of available information. Today, my photography project continues; although it is anecdotal and personal, it validates conclusions of current research efforts made by: Dr. Mary Byrne, Marie-Celeste Weisenburg (PhD candidate from UW with pending participatory action research), Chandra Villaneuva with the Women’s Prison Association, and the National Women’s Law Center with the Rebecca Project for human rights.
There is a great need to focus more attention and resources to maternal-infant health issues among this growing population. Both prison-based nursery and community-based programs have a place in our public health and safety system. We midwives like to say that we change the world one baby at a time. Through my work, I know that midwives are also the best-qualified providers that can make a huge impact on empowering incarcerated women.