By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
Things have gotten better for women in Alabama who give birth while incarcerated, but health professionals and childbirth specialists say more still needs to happen.
Measures as simple as getting an accurate record of how many pregnant women are in all of Alabama’s jails and prisons is something that Alabama Prison Birth Project Director Ashley Lovell wants to see.
Lovell said that since county and local jails are not required to keep track of how many pregnant women they house, there is no way of knowing what kind of care they are receiving.
“We know almost nothing about them or the care they are getting,” Lovell said. “My hope is that we can get all 67 counties to start collecting information because once we know the scope then we know how to supply support.”
She was speaking Friday at the Alabama Infant Mortality Reduction Summit, organized by the Alabama Department of Public Health.
According to a study published this year by the American Journal of Public Health, there is a 3.8% pregnancy rate among incarcerated women in the US. Applied to Alabama’s nearly 3,000 women in jails or prisons, that means there are as many as 120 pregnant women locked up in the state at any given time.
Lovell said that the most pregnant women they’ve seen at the state’s Julia Tutwiler Prison, the largest female prison in the state, at one time was eleven.
The Alabama Prison Birth Project is a non-profit with a mission is to improve the health of newborns from incarcerated women and to strengthen maternal bonds and maternal self-efficacy.
Lovell says that she wishes pregnant women weren’t incarcerated in the first place.
“I think we can do better,” Lovell told Alabama Daily News. “We can have a way to serve these sentences outside the prison and in some places those sentences are suspended until four months postpartum. I’m not sure if that’s the way but I know there are alternatives.”
In the past 18 months, the Alabama Prison Birth project has helped deliver 33 babies from women at Tutwiler while a doula supported them through their pregnancy.
Lovell said conditions for pregnant women in Tutwiler is overall an “environment of deprivation.”
They are subject to high levels of stress, they lack the proper calorie intake and lack proper nutrients needed, all of which can lead to premature deliveries or high rates of caesarian deliveries.
Tutwiler is the oldest prison in the state, built in 1942. The population fluctuates somewhere between 700-900 inmates.
An email seeking comment from the Alabama Department of Corrections was sent Friday afternoon.
Since the late 1970s, Lovell says there has been an almost 1,000% increase of Alabama women’s incarcerated population. Many attribute that increase to drug sentencing laws and post-conviction re-entry laws.
Chauntel Norris is the Mother’s Milk Initiative coordinator and a certified doula who works with the Alabama Prison Birth Project. The Mother’s Milk Initiative started this year to help mothers in prison get their expressed breast milk to their babies, wherever they may be in the state.
During the actual labor, the mother is typically transported to the nearest birthing hospital. Norris said. There has to be two correctional officers in the room at all times, along with medical staff. Family is not allowed to attend.
Which is why the doulas are such an important resource for these incarcerated women to have.
Norris explains that the doula steps in as a partner for the mothers and is there to provide constant encouragement and give a sense of normalcy to the situation.
“We help celebrate the miracle of life with the mom and help welcome the baby with love even though there are heavy circumstances coming with that birth,” Norris said.
The amount of time mothers have with their newborns is a very short window.
The women are typically returned to prison 24 hours or less after they’ve given birth vaginally and 48 hours if they’ve given birth via caesarian.
They are allowed one three-hour window each month for their baby to come visit them and it takes about six weeks after birth for the prison to approve that visit. Phone calls home can be very expensive as well, with calls costing 30 cents per minute.
The Alabama Prison Birth Project also holds weekly classes and a support group in Tutwiler where women can come to learn proper prenatal care and learn from other mothers.
Lovell said that in order to reduce infant mortality among these women, as well as premature, underweight babies, then more support, resources and care need to be given to these incarcerated women.
“It may cost more and be more expensive but in the long run, it will save costs to society and hopefully break that cycle for the woman,” Lovell said.