23 July 2009

Birth behind bars

According to a recent report in the New York Times, there are still states that keep pregnant inmates shackled during labour and birth. In some cases, an inmates legs, wrists and even abdomen are chained, quite obviously making medical treatment difficult. Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons last fall called for an end to the practice except in cases where inmates are a danger to themselves or others, it is thought that some women are still shackled in spite of state regulations.

After birth, the treatment of new mothers is no better. Most prisons make no provisions for inmates to be with their newborns. Infants are typically taken away from the mother immediately and either sent to live with family members or placed in foster care. According to a 2000 report in Time, New York, Nebraska and Washington State are the only exceptions; prisons in these states have nurseries in which infants are allowed to live with their mothers for a year to 18 months. Understandably, it is debatable whether infants are better off living in prison at the most critical point in their little lives. There is a dearth of research regarding long-term psychological effects of prison life on children.

In New York, however, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility opened the nation's first prison nursery 100 years ago, and today its parenting program has had dramatic results. Only 10% of women who successfully completed the program returned to prison, in contrast to 52% of inmates overall.

There is some hope for pregnant inmates. There are a number of organisations across the US that try to organise volunteer doulas (traditional birth attendants) to help to empower pregnant inmates. The Peace Tree Prison Doulas serve incarcerated women in North Carolina penitentaries. They offer two main services to these women; each week they facilitate a pregnancy, labor and postpartum discussion group based on the womens' interests and needs, as well as provide continuous birth doula support when inmates go into labor. After delivery, they provide continuous postpartum counseling and breastfeeding support.

How can we deny pregnant women their right to a safe birth?


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