Working on Protective Custody has been a natural outgrowth of both my professional and personal interests. I had been a certified nurse-midwife before being recruited to evaluate children who were victims of abuse. Empowering women, birth, and the critical importance of healthy newborn attachment are themes at the heart of midwifery. In a pediatric abuse clinic, childhoods traumatized by domestic violence, addictions, neglect, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse are what we know.
When I first heard about the concept of non-violent pregnant inmates being allowed to keep their newborns and toddlers with them on the prison grounds while they served their relatively short sentences, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. Initial trepidation was surpassed by the welcome I received from corrections administrators, officers, and inmates of J Unit, the unit where the mother-baby prison nursery is housed.
As a mother myself, I could not imagine the pain of relinquishing my newborn. As a professional, I believed that this program could offer an amazing opportunity for intervention. Pregnancy, childbirth, and becoming a mother is usually a time of transformation, of major reworking of lifestyle and health choices. Women who are not motivated to make better decisions for themselves at any other time will often reevaluate priorities based on their imagined offspring. Additionally, what we know about child abuse is that there are characteristics putting children at greater risk: an informed mother about these risks can offer greater protection for her child. The opportunity to educate incarcerated women must be attempted.
Many of the inmates have been very candid with me in our conversations about their lives… past, current, and imagined futures. Most are intimately familiar with shame, remorse, failure, trauma, and loss. But they also speak with pride, hope, and determination about coming to term with their issues and leaving prison better prepared to make effective decisions about their lives. It is an interesting experience to be surrounded by women who are consciously searching for a better way to live. They already know first hand what the alternative is.
When I reflect on vulnerable populations, I think being pregnant AND incarcerated is just about as vulnerable as it gets. The women who qualify to participate in the Residential Parenting Program realize what a gift they have been given: a drug-free environment, doula support, Early Head Start educators, “mom’s groups,” trade skills, educational opportunities, and structure with purpose. It makes sense to think of the Residential Parenting Program as a place where a truly “captive” group of mothers could begin to rewrite the scripts of their lives.
I wish to thank my husband, Al, and our children, Cody, Shaine, and Annie for their unconditional support throughout this project. And thanks also to my extended family and friends for steady encouragement.
I also want to acknowledge the following people and organizations: