Three pregnant women in khaki jumpsuits sit in a circle on blue plastic chairs. The florescent lighting of the cafeteria turned classroom buzzes softly in the background and every so often an ice machine lets off the small rumble of an internal avalanche. Correctional officers breeze in and out; often with no regard for the discussion they’re interrupting.
The setting is a small facility on the outskirts of a big city; a facility that houses every pregnant woman sentenced to prison time at the state level. Corrections officials estimate about 100 births happen from this facility every year. At any given time there can be as many as 40 pregnant women living there, serving their time.
There’s little to do during the day. Many women say they pass the time sleeping, only waking up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Before Motherhood Beyond Bars stepped in, the only other activities were GED classes (for those who hadn’t graduated high school), some mental health groups, and a man that came in occasionally to teach HIV-prevention.
Boredom was one major problem; lack of information was another. For many women this was a first pregnancy, and in a population with low health-literacy misinformation ran rampant. Without pregnancy or childbirth education, women were left to share anecdotal stories and worry for hours over the slightest pain. One corrections employee described the situation as “the blind leading the blind.”
In response to these problems, Motherhood Beyond Bars launched prenatal yoga, allowing these women to reap the many benefits of pregnancy fitness. A few months later we began Mothering from the Start, a 9-week childbirth education series designed specifically for pregnant incarcerated women. Through Mothering from the Start these women not only learn the physiological processes of pregnancy and childbirth, they also practice proper nutrition, exercise, stress relief, fetal movement monitoring, and ways to bond with their babies during pregnancy and immediately after birth.
It is the middle of Session 7 and emotions were running high. A lecture on postpartum mood disorders has shifted the atmosphere of the room from light and casual to something darker. It isn’t long before a few students are in tears. “I don’t think I can do it. I’m so scared,” says a woman with long hair and eyes filled with hurt. “She’s been with me for nine months. How can I let her go?”
Like many incarcerated pregnant women throughout the United States, these women will have to say goodbye to their babies a short two hours after giving birth, only counting on 24-48 hours of sporadic visits before she goes north to carry out the rest of her sentence and the baby is handed over to a family member or friend. Some women are released a few months after giving birth. Given the remote location of many prisons, some go for a year or more without seeing their baby.
In class, teachers and other students offer support and a listening ear. The women are encouraged to share their feelings, or not to, however they feel most comfortable. For many, Mothering from the Start is a haven inside of the facility, a 90-minute pause to ask questions, share stories, and be reassured that someone on the outside cares. Two classes a week can’t replace precious time spent with a baby, but as positive change moves slowly through the prison system we do what we can.