Today was long.
We had the opportunity to tour a Minnesota Women’s Correctional Facility. This is Minnesota’s only women’s prison, and for 114 years there has been no fence. No fence, folks. They have used controlled movement and observation to keep the women safely within the facility. These women are about to gain a little freedom of movement that has never been known in 114 years at this prison with the completion of the new fence that is being built.
Shakopee Women’s Prison reminds us of a small college campus. There are tulips blooming in the courtyard. There are colorful tiles on the walls and carpet in the halls. Like on a college campus, they have all sorts of programming for these women. Shakopee has a licensed cosmetology school, a sewing factory, and heavy machinery training. Women who live here are prepping for reentry into society with vocational skills so that they can find jobs. True to its name, this department of corrections takes its mission seriously: to reduce recidivism and equip those who have gone astray, or who have made complicated choices in order to survive, with skills to better their lives.
There are multiple residence buildings for the women in Shakopee. One is a parenting residence that allows 40 women to have extended visitation with their children (4 hours instead of the usual 1 hour on Saturdays). Parent-child bonding is happening regularly in this residence block, along with heartbreak at the end of the visiting hours.
Not far from this residence hall, we hear a loud cadence. “Mam, yes mam!”
We walk over to “Boot Camp”, a program of intense discipline and training which helps women shorten their sentence and relieve themselves from chemical dependency.
The Corrections Officer introduces us to the group of 25 or so women, standing at military attention and staring straight ahead. She asks them if they have ever heard of a doula. Many women raise their hands. She asks them if they had a doula when they gave birth. Only two keep their hand raised. She asks if any of them had a doula while in prison. One keeps her hand raised.
After permission is granted for her to stand at ease, we notice a single tear rolling down her cheek. She says her doula’s name was Hope and she could not have survived giving birth to and separating from her son without that doula by her side. She looks us straight in the eye and says, “Thank you.”
The Minnesota Prison Doula Project has been conducting prenatal, postpartum, and parenting education at Shakopee for 7 years. Two women have pushed for and grown the project for all these years: Erica & Rae. These women are now our mentors. They invite us to the new mom group hosted weekly for pregnant and postpartum moms. Eight mothers, six expectant and two postpartum, shuffle slowly in, their bellies bulging, their gait waddling.
“I’m exercising every day – doing the step tape! And still, no baby!” sighs one mom two days shy of her due date.
Another mom, who is planning to adopt out her twins, talks about how the adoptive family has promised to bring them to see her before they return to their home state. She calmly talks about how she wants to bond with them before they go to their forever family.
The expectant moms review life size models of a fetus and discuss where their baby is in its development stage. One mother says she hasn’t felt her baby move yet. Another says her baby won’t stop moving when she is in the loud cafeteria. Someone reads in her handouts that a 40-week baby is the size of a jackfruit.
“What in the world is a jackfruit?” we laugh.
At the end of the lesson, we get to ask some of the questions to help us build a similar program in Alabama. We ask these mothers how having access to a doula through their pregnancy has benefited them.
“It makes us feel human,” one woman answers quietly. We all listen. She explains that many of her prison mates ask her about her pregnancy, but they don’t listen to her. They only have a shallow interest. No one really cares about her and her baby, except for her doula.
We don’t know yet what general programming is in place for incarcerated women in Alabama. That is an exciting part of our homework. We will have to be versed about what is offered to these women since we are now a part of that programming. But the most important thing we learned today was that no matter how fancy the prison or how many programs are offered, pregnant, incarcerated women just want to be “treated like a human.”
Statements like these are what continue to draw us ever deeper into this project. Doula support during pregnancy, birth, and post-partum helps incarcerated moms to remember that they are still human and they are still worthy. We know this feeling of worthiness can transform them into confident parents.
We have all experienced the feeling of not being heard, of having the same conversations over and over and not really feeling like the person we are talking to truly cares. Incarcerated, pregnant moms may feel like this daily, until a doula comes along and invests time and energy into hearing that woman’s feelings and needs and holding space for her grief.
The women that we sit in a circle with tonight are just like the women we sit in a circle with in Alabama's prison. They have the same concerns and experience the same stressors - most of which revolve around separating from their babies. Just like moms on the outside, they worry about baby names, getting enough exercise, and drinking enough water. They experience the moments of joy and exhaustion that come with pregnancy. All pregnant women experience certain stressors, but incarcerated pregnant women experience stressors that are even more compounded by the environment they live in.
We acknowledge that our long day pales in comparison to being pregnant in prison.