Giving birth to a child can be both a wonderful and challenging experience. But when you are incarcerated, the challenges can be even greater.
Acknowledging this fact and trying to provide a more humane experience for incarcerated women going through pregnancy, the birth of their child and then separation instigated the start of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project (MnPDP).
A doula is a trained professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a mother before, during and shortly after childbirth to help her achieve the healthiest, most satisfying experience possible.
“Erica Gerrity was in the master’s program in social work at St. Kate’s in the early 2000s,” said Raelene Baker, director of MnPDP. “She was able to talk with incarcerated people and see what was offered at the time. She realized there was just no support for those pregnant and coming back from having babies. She connected with me and other doulas to see what a program might look like.”
After a couple years of program development, MnPDP began in 2010. “We looked at what they needed, what they were missing and how we would be able to help,” Baker explained.
“At the beginning, doulas were fairly well known in the Twin Cities but not everywhere across the country. We did a lot of explaining about what we wanted to do, especially in a correctional setting. And now so many more correctional facilities are reaching out to the doulas. Currently the group works with the state prison at Shakopee and several county jails throughout the state.
“We have seen a culture shift over the years, and we want to bring this to our facilities,” Baker said. “We have seen a change in how people are treated at the hospital, while they are in care and once they are back in incarceration. Leadership is changing in our state, and we see a lot more ‘people first’ language.”
She said the word offender is not being used, and she is glad to see that shift. “Lots of people are coming together in leadership, and it is all positive,” Baker noted. “It sets Minnesota apart from other places.”
MnPDP has had a long-term relationship with the University of Minnesota, with Rebecca Schlafer as director of research. Data results have shown a higher rate of healthy babies and healthy pregnancies with women who are part of the doula program than average prison births.
Key partners on the Minneapolis-based program include Ramsey County, Anoka County and Pine County.
'ANYBODY CAN BE INCARCERATED'
Brittany Seaver has been a recipient of doula services and now is a doula herself. “There had been no support for incarcerated women giving birth,” she said. “Nurses tried to support as much as they could, but there was no one to rub the mom’s back, or provide essential oil. A mom usually spent two days with her baby and then returned to incarceration. There was no support during that separation as well, before the arrival of the doula program.”
An anti-shackling law was not in place until 2015 when Minnesota passed anti-shackling legislation. As a result, incarcerated women cannot be restrained during pregnancy and in the post-partum period, with rare exceptions. However, Seaver said the law is not consistent and in some instances, the practice continues.
Seaver used the doula services in 2011, when MnPDP was quite new. “I was going into jail knowing I was four months pregnant and would have to be there during my pregnancy,” she said.
“You have no choice of where you go or how much medical care you receive,” Seaver said. “You feel like you don’t have a voice and if you do, you are not heard or respected by many staff since you are just a number.” She said knowing there was someone there who would hold her hand and be there for her and not judge her was so important.
Baker was her doula and came with her to the hospital. But Seaver arrived first, and there had been some communication problems, so she was waiting for Baker to come. “I was waiting for the doula to get there before I pushed my daughter out,” Seaver remembered. “When Rae came, she took a ton of pictures. It was a life-changing moment for me in that moment.”
Seaver’s mom came to take the baby, and the doula was also there for the separation. “I got out when my daughter was 18 months old,” Seaver said. “I got out in two years instead of six. People often say incarcerated mothers do it to themselves and have only themselves to blame for the situation they are in. Anybody can be incarcerated. It depends on who you are with; it can be the company you keep.
“For Rae to be there with me and not judge me was amazing.” Seaver said she got pregnant again a year after she hadbeen released, and she wanted Baker with her as a doula again. “She had touched such a spot in my heart,” Seaver explained. “I always knew I wanted to work with the doulas and stay connected with them. I have been working with the doulas for four years.”
Seaver said she would like to see the doula program implemented in all jails and facilities. “We are always striving for ways we can be of support, and make sure nobody gives birth alone.”
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION COMMON
Autumn Mason has also seen the MnPDP from both sides, as a participant and later as a trained doula.
“I came as a client in 2014 when I was incarcerated at Shakopee,” she said. “At the time of my sentencing I was seven and a half months pregnant, and I received doula support. I continued to work with a doula through a parenting program and came to appreciate the community it is built around.
“Once I was released, I worked with the doulas on a volunteer basis, and in 2020 I was brought on as staff. I have undergone the doula training, lactation consultant training, family trauma professional training, and I am a certified life coach.”
Mason said that fairly often, both parents are incarcerated. “We offer parental support with fathers, but our care is primarily with the mother,” she stated. Mason said the doulas try to connect with the mom as soon as possible, but MnPDP is optional, and some expectant mothers may choose not to participate.
She said every case is different, and it is not uncommon for the incarcerated moms to remain connected with unincarcerated partners. “Whatever the family looks like, we support the mom, the caregiver and the child,” Mason said.
“Other than my own, every situation or client I have been blessed to work with is unique in its own way,” Mason added. “For me, I think my experience resonates with me every time I attend a birth. So many experiences are unfavorable, and I want to make sure my clients don’t have that.”
Mason said that in particular, she wants her clients to feel a sense of pride and dignity. Births take place in a medical setting at local hospitals in the metro area. Based on the health conditions of the mother and baby, those settings can vary, according to Mason. “If medical issues or complications are expected, it is more of a specialty hospital,” she said. She said that in her experience, the medical staff has always treated the patients with the same dignity as an unincarcerated mother.
“As a doula, our focus is the birthing mom,” Mason continued. “We don’t provide any medical care, but instead emotional, mental and physical support. We try to meet the need of the birthing mom and help her enjoy or at least find peace and comfort in her birthing experience.”
She said she starts working with the mother before the birthing process, holding conversations about personal preferences so she can best represent her. “We start with stretches and activities and go through the pregnancy to postpartum, as well.” Since most mothers are separated from their child within a couple days after birth, support during that separation is essential.
Most of her clients maintain custodial rights with their children, arranging for family, relatives or friends to provide care for the child. “Some may choose not to continue with custodial care; it is the mom’s decision,” Mason said. She said the doulas provide emotional support for any pregnant client, no matter what her decision is. “We do not make any preference or judgment on decisions,” she said. “For the clients who may choose not to continue with their pregnancy, the ongoing services may differ because postpartum may look different, by choice.”
Mason said each part of the pregnancy has its individual challenges. “A woman who is pregnant and coming into prison is in a high anxiety situation. Weighing out options of placement for the child could also cause a great deal of stress. There is no way we can change the situation for them, and it’s a very delicate process to build trust. A lot of clients are completely foreign to what the criminal justice system looks like from the inside.
“Closer to delivery or at the time of birth, it is a very precious experience. A new life is coming into this world and we witness the growth and empowerment of the mom in this situation. Separation is extremely challenging for any mom, and this is a very delicate time. The moms are going through a seesaw of emotions,” Mason said. “Doulas provide the most emotional support they get in prison. Post-partum they suffer from a heightened sense of depression.”
BIRTH WORK IS SPIRITUAL WORK
Jocelyn Brieschke has worked as a doula for 18 years, mostly in her Indigenous community. “I knew I wanted to work with MnPDP, but I wasn’t sure how it would turn out,” she said. “It’s a lot different for mothers inside to have to give birth while incarcerated. There is the separation visit, and you can’t be with your baby. That’s very challenging, and I was worried and concerned about what you do.”
But a friend convinced her to do it. “I feel like birth work is spiritual work when you are there to help that baby come to the world in a good way, and that’s what is most important,” Brieschke said.
She has been working for the prison project for over five years now. She also works for an Indigenous program and sometimes has private clients.
Brieschke said having a doula takes a lot of pressure off the expectant mom. “I have three kids, and I had a doula for two of them. It is a really nice experience, I think, when you find someone who is a good fit for your family.”
According to Brieschke, if a woman is incarcerated she is not allowed to have her partner present at the birth. “You are with three guards, usually, and with your doula.
“You don’t get to see your partner even if they come to pick up the baby. If your partner is there and caring for the baby, having to miss the birth is hard for a lot of people.” Brieschke said this rule applies to all, and grandparents or relatives who are going to care for the baby are also not allowed to be present for the birth.
A lot of the birth mothers return to incarceration devastated and in shock. “You are supposed to have a nice period of time recovering, but you don’t get that in prison,” Brieschke said. “Most women are in prison for nonviolent crimes, bad choices in a partner or drug addiction, which shouldn’t be a punishable crime as far as I am concerned.”
CONSIDER THE KIDS
For some of the incarcerated mothers there has been a monumental change.
Gov. Tim Walz signed the Healthy Care Act into law in May 2021. This act enables incarcerated mothers to be moved to a halfway house or residential treatment facility so that they can bond with their newborn and not be separated from their child. MnPDP was a strong advocate for this law, with many of the doulas testifying on its behalf.
“This is something small and easy to do,” Baker said.
“The Healthy Care Act provides these women with other opportunities to give birth out in the community and stay with their babies longer,” Seaver added. “But women with longer sentences are not able to utilize it. You have to have only a year left to participate. So women who have a few years remaining on their sentences cannot at this time be with their babies. I hope we can have more influence on that and hope they change the stipulations.”
Brieschke noted that lack of housing is a big barrier in trying to get all incarcerated birth mothers covered by this act.
Mason said an ultimate goal is to see moms not incarcerated. “I encourage everyone to consider the kids of incarcerated people. They are innocent but born at a disadvantage. It’s worth considering how we can give them a fair and healthy start at life and not continue the cycle of trauma.”
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