Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Empowering Incarcerated Women during Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherhood

by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott, CNM

Mandi and Gabriel (3 days old)
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.


Janice K. Banther said...

My name is Janice Banther. I am the Founder and Executive Director of For The Love Of Birth, Inc. and Birth Behind Bars. For the past 10 years, we have been involved in a county jail. First we started by teaching childbirth classes to the pregnant inmates. Once we gained the trust of the jail, we asked if we could be doulas for the women that give birth. Since it is a jail, they go to a local hospital. Now, we also offer classes that are open to all of the women and now to all of the men in the jail on how to not hurt a baby - Shaken Baby Syndrome, Happiest Baby On The Block, and New Born Care. We love the work that we do.
www.birthbehindbars.com, www.birthingwithlove.com
We are on facebook

Amber Bradford said...

Knowing that our state has been able to successfully implement a program the allows mothers and their children to stay together at birth makes me proud to be a Washingtonian! These children are being given the opportunity to form healthy attachments with their mother, which all too often is taken away from other babies who have no say in the matter. I am excited and anxious to see how this will change the lives of mothers and children across generations!

Rachel and Scott's family said...

Wow! I could just cry reading this! I cannot imagine the impact this will have on both the mothers and infants in these type of programs! Tripple Kudos to you!

Stacy Vandenput, Licensed Midwife said...

I had the unique opportunity to conduct workshops in a women's prison in 2002 and wrote about the experience here: I Hope you enjoy reading about it. Stacy Vandenput, Licensed Midwife, Wisconsin