Incarcerated women face substantial challenges while pregnant behind bars. One midwife is using photography to help give a voice to these women.
For the majority of women, finding out that they are pregnant is an exciting time that marks the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. For the next nine months, these women make choices that will impact the lives of their newborns for years to come. From what foods to eat while pregnant to who will be present during birth, women prepare for this transformative moment that includes both the birth of a baby, as well as the beginning of motherhood.
However, for one growing group of women, the pregnancy experience is often fraught with anxiety, uncertainty, and despair.
Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women in the United States has risen 700%. Although little data surrounds the issue of pregnancy within the correctional system, it is estimated that approximately 1 in 17 women enters prison while pregnant. These incarcerated women face substantial emotional and health challenges while pregnant behind bars.
A small group of moms at the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW), also known as Purdy, have been given an opportunity that very few incarcerated pregnant women are afforded.
In 1999, Washington’s largest correction center for females initiated the Residential Parenting Program (RPP). This highly selective program allows non-violent pregnant offenders with sentences less than 30 months to maintain custody of their babies, and raise them within the facility.
The moms and their babies are housed together in the J-unit, a dorm-like building in which each pair has a private room with a bed and a crib. Within the unit, the women can utilize the kitchen to make their meals, attend parenting classes, and raise their children among a community of women going through similar experiences. Also unique to the program is the only “Early Head Start Program” housed in an American prison.
Created in collaboration with the Puget Sound Educational Service District, the Early Head Start Program provides education and support to the women and their children.
In addition to supporting the new moms and helping the mother-baby pair bond, a primary goal of the program is to reduce recidivism rates, the rates at which released inmates end up back in prison. Statistics show that the program is working. The recidivism rate for women who participate in the RPP is 10-12%, compared to the 40-50% of the general population.
Studies have shown that mothers in a prison nursery can raise infants who are securely attached to them at rates comparable to healthy community children. Given this fact, it is surprising that out of 100 women’s prisons in the U.S., only 8 have nursery programs that allow mothers and babies to stay together.
Incarcerated pregnant women are an invisible population, with most people unaware of the hardships they face on a daily basis. However, one midwife has spent the better part of the last decade and a half trying to change that. Through the use of her camera, retired nurse midwife, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott, is helping to tell the stories of these moms.
“Pregnancy is such a critical time in a woman’s life, and so many women are under-supported during this transformative time,” Hanna-Truscott told Mothering Magazine. “While there needs to be accountability for criminal behavior, we need to find a way in our crisis-oriented society to show sympathy and support for these women.”
Hanna-Truscott became aware of the Residential Parenting Program in the late 1990s, shortly after its inception. In 2003, she began volunteering with the women. With her experience and background as a midwife, the women in the program quickly accepted Hanna-Truscott and identified her as a safe person with whom they could share their feelings. It was then that she began her portrait documentary.
“I wanted to bring this invisible and voiceless population into public consciousness,” said Hanna-Truscott. Having photographed hundreds of women over the years, Hanna-Truscott has gained a unique first-hand perspective. She has documented much of her work, as well as information about the prison pregnancy experience.
As a service to these women, Hanna-Truscott takes photographs of them, often returning several times. While capturing everyday moments in their cells, she sits and listens. She then gifts each woman approximately ten prints for each photography session. For most of these women, these pictures will be the only photographs that they have of their young babies.
“I’ve only had one woman not want to be photographed,” Hanna-Truscott tells Mothering. “These women want their story told. They are absolutely grateful to be accepted in the program and to receive the photographs.”
Pregnant incarcerated women face obstacles that most women can’t fathom. For example, when it comes to the induction of labor or a scheduled Cesarean Section, pregnant inmates are typically not informed of their appointment until moments before they need to leave for the hospital. While this policy is meant to prevent others from assisting in an escape or from interfering with the birth, it often means that pregnant mothers labor without any mental preparation or support.
Under constant surveillance by correction officers, these laboring women are continuously watched, but often feel completely alone.
Not all women are as fortunate as those accepted into the RPP. For many pregnant inmates, labor is the least of their pain. As a general rule, the mothers are allowed to spend 24 hours bonding with their newborns before they experience what is referred to as “the separation.” For many mothers, this might be the last time they see their children.
While the number of female inmates has increased dramatically, the U.S. prison system has not been quick to adapt to the changes. Laws have failed to take into account that incarcerated mothers are typically the primary caretakers of their children. Additionally, the crimes committed by women tend to be less violent than men’s crimes, and usually involve substance abuse. Poverty and addiction are prime motivators for female criminals, who have often lived a lifetime of abuse.
Hanna-Truscott shares that she has been witness to the various advantages of a prison nursery program. As many of the women’s crimes involve drug addiction, the structured program gives the mothers an opportunity to be away from that unhealthy environment. Further, the program helps to hold the mothers accountable. “The program prevents these women from being enabled by well-intentioned family members who would otherwise step in, thus giving the mothers a way out of parenting.”
One woman of whom Hanna-Truscott photographed told her, “I knew that I was going to prison. It was actually prison that saved my life.”
Photography: Cheryl Hanna-Truscott