We asked Marianne Bullock of the Prison Birth Project to answer a few questions about what the experience is like in her area of the country. The Prison Birth Project provides prenatal, labor and postpartum support to women who are incarcerated in Western Massachusetts. Policies regarding pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding can vary by state and facility.
How common is it that a woman gives birth while serving a prison sentence?
The percentage of women in prison who are pregnant is about the same as in our general population, so anywhere from 6-10%. The average sentence of a woman in Massachusetts is 18 months, so most of those women will give birth while incarcerated. In our facility the family counselor does work really hard to help get women out before they deliver, so often times we are lucky to be able to serve clients who are back home with their families and support them in having the birth they envisioned for themselves and their baby.
In your area, where do these mothers give birth? What is particularly challenging for them?
The mothers we work with give birth in the hospital. There are many obstacles and tough situations. One of the most prevalent things is that women are transported with handcuffs to the hospital in labor and in the postpartum period are often transported in 5 point restraints, sometimes only 24 hours after delivery.
I think the most challenging thing that I am witness to as a doula is mothers having to hand off care of their children so they can return to the facility. It’s never an easy transition, but it is a situation that we work really hard with our clients to prepare for in order to make it the least traumatic as possible. Most of the time that looks like taking a lot of time to listen and plan out what will feel the safest for the mom during that transition and in the days following.
Are mothers who want to breastfeed or provide breastmilk for their babies able to do so in your area?
Breastfeeding is actually one of our biggest areas of success. A few years ago we had our first mama who wanted to breastfeed. We put a call out and the breastfeeding coalition donated a hospital grade pump to the organization. We got it cleared with the jail and trained the staff in how to operate it. Since then we have had a number of women choose to breastfeed and a few chose long term breastmilk for their children (one even for 9 months!). It has been amazing. Even though women only have one hour a week to visit when they can breastfeed skin to skin, it has meant so much for bonding and some women’s ability to overcome a feeling of loss of parental control.
What does the Prison Birth Project do?