Two percent of inmates — about a dozen at any given time — at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women are pregnant, and even though they represent a minority, they are still women in need of specialized services, as Ashley Brown was quick to learn.
Incarcerated at 26 for a probation violation after a 2009 robbery conviction, Brown was arrested in Nov. 2016 for driving under the influence. While in jail, Brown discovered she was eight weeks pregnant. She already had a 3-year-old son. In an interview with Fox News affiliate WBRC, Brown reported feeling like a failure, saying, “It’s not just you that’s getting locked up, everybody is locked up with you. Your children, they need you.”
Based in Wetumpka, Alabama, Tutwiler itself was an especially difficult place for expectant mothers. In 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) uncovered “frequent and severe” officer-on-inmate sexual violence, an inadequate prison design, unhygienic conditions, abuse of control, and untrained staff at the facility. Part of the DOJ’s settlement and improvements stemming from the investigation is the new monthly support group for expectant mothers.
The support group is run by the Alabama Prison Birth Project, whose mission is to “improve the health of newborns birthed by women in custody while strengthening maternal bonds and maternal self-efficacy.”
During the first meeting, the pregnant inmates met outside of the main prison, in a trailer that is typically used to house juveniles. Some of the attending inmates had already given birth and were there for the moral and mental support. A doula and nurse, Erin Brown, answered questions and taught the group about breastfeeding, nutrition, childcare, and what to expect during labor. Vegan appetizers and boiled eggs were provided. For some of the women in the room, it was the first time they received any type of prenatal care – and for some, it was their first time being sober during a pregnancy.
The program also helps women make plans for what happens after they give birth. While some women are able to place their children in the care of relatives or guardians, others rely on the services of Adullum House.
The house is a religious-based facility that supports incarcerated women and their children in Alabama. “It is better to build up children then to repair adults,” is the Adullum House motto. Their program also makes volunteers available to the inmates to allow them to talk through the emotions they feel while separated from their newborn children. Doula and registered nurse Erin Brown says having a plan in place to honor the moment the baby is taken from them can be healing.
As for inmate Brown, the program has been very helpful. “I feel like when I’m here [in the meetings] I’m not in prison. I like that with us being pregnant, we don’t get into it with each other; we try to help each other. I plan on never coming back here again. I’m going to focus on what I really need to focus on, which is getting myself together for my children.” She hoped to be released before the birth of her baby girl and br reunited with her son, who was under the care of her father.
Children of incarcerated parents have committed no crime, and should be given the best possible starts in their lives, with prenatal care and support provided for their mothers. Giving incarcerated parents tools to care for and nurture their children down the road is a vital part of their rehabilitation, and increases hopes for better future outcomes for both parents and their children. The Alabama Prison Birth project is not state funded and relies on donations to continue providing support.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.