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Mothers Behind Bars

The Prison Birth Project helps women in prison with pregnancy, delivery and parenting.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Laura Adkins still remembers the empty feeling in the pit of her stomach. For the seven months she spent incarcerated, one month in Greenfield at the Franklin County House of Corrections and six at the Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee, the absence of her children was like physical pain.

"I always call it the black hole," said Adkins, 32, who has been out of jail since November. "I refer to it as the black hole in the pit of your stomach, way deep down— that hurt that is there from the time that you have the cuffs put on you until the day you walk out the door."

Adkins went to jail for receiving a stolen birthday present which, she says, she didn't know was stolen. The gift was given to her by a friend who, along with Adkins' husband, had been asked to clear out an abandoned apartment by the building's landlord. Later the former occupant of the emptied apartment would claim that the property cleared out of the apartment had not been abandoned and had been stolen.

Adkins says her attorney told her that because she had recently given birth to her fourth child, she was considered "postpartum": too emotional to testify in her own defense, even though she wanted to. Apart from the feeling of injustice that resulted from her trial and conviction, Adkins was healing from a Caesarean section and full hysterectomy. She was incarcerated when her son, Thomas, was four months old.

"You try to seek different ways to make it go away—the Bible, talking, classes, sleep, medication. Nothing works. The only thing that works is being home with your kids. That's it," said Adkins. "Nothing numbs it and nothing takes it away. It's the harsh reality—the absence of your children and family. There's nothing like it."

*

The structure of life in the jail—the strip searches, the uniformed guards, the heavily controlled schedule, the medications used to sedate her—made Adkins feel stripped of her right to be an emotional person. "It's really humiliating having to face the guards that watch you strip every day," Adkins said. "It's really humiliating knowing that they just saw you stark-ass naked, and that's a personal, private thing. You don't have that personal, private thing anymore. You are an inmate. You are a ward of the state. You have nothing. You are a number attached to a photo. ... You have no right to feel, no emotions, no opinions, you have nothing. You do and say what you're told to do. That's it."

But the Mothers Among Us support group, run by Marianne Bullock and Lisa Andrews, brought Adkins some relief. She was tired of going to classes about drug addiction when she had never been a drug addict, or to lectures about crimes she had not committed. In the support group, she could talk about her real problem—how much she missed her children.

Adkins is now one of about 25 active members of the Prison Birth Project, a group founded two years ago by Bullock and Andrews to provide birth and postpartum support services to women who are incarcerated at WCC in Chicopee and to women outside the jail who are at risk of becoming incarcerated. Bullock acts as a doula, providing physical and emotional support and advocacy for women through the birth process itself. While there are a handful of doula programs across the country that work with incarcerated women, the Prison Birth Project is the only group that organizes with previously incarcerated women and provides leadership development, Bullock said.

Women at WCC may be more fortunate than most. The facility supports the work that Andrews and Bullock do, allowing them to conduct groups inside the jail and to support pregnant women through their births. According to WCC superintendent Patricia Murphy, the WCC has a "positive and active partnership" with the Prison Birth Project.

Services like those offered by the Prison Birth Project are needed because the situation of women in prison differs in a few essential respects from the situation of men. First, women tend to arrive in prison by a slightly different route. More than two-thirds of women in state prison in 2006 were incarcerated for non-violent offenses—28.9 percent of them for "property" crimes, like burglary or larceny, and 27.5 percent for drug-related offenses. Over half the men in state prison, on the other hand, were sentenced for violent offenses, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

Then there is the fact that 85 percent of women in prison are mothers. There are, of course, incarcerated fathers, but they are less likely to be primary caregivers for their children; a study for the state of California found that about 66 percent of mothers in prison were primary caregivers—many of them single mothers—before being arrested. Children of incarcerated men, however, in 90 percent of cases continued to be cared for by their mothers.

And only women give birth, which makes the situation of a pregnant woman or a new mother in prison completely unlike anything experienced by male prisoners.

The experience of being pregnant or even giving birth while incarcerated may be unimaginable for mothers on the outside who are able to choose the precise venue and method of their birth. Pregnant women may not be afforded adequate nutrition, medical care or psychiatric services, and in some states they may be shackled or restrained during birth. The practices and policies depend largely on the state and facility where women are incarcerated. WCC policy doesn't permit women in active labor to be handcuffed, shackled or restrained in any way, and Bullock said she has never seen a pregnant woman in shackles at the facility.

*

For Bullock and Andrews, the struggle to support incarcerated women begins with the ability to relate to their experiences.

Bullock, now 26, dropped out of high school in Quincy when she was 17 and began a life of traveling, train-hopping and what she calls "trouble-making." After a few run-ins with police, she was incarcerated for a misdemeanor in a county jail in Alabama. The few weeks she spent there marked a turning point, she said.

"I never felt like I had such a lack of human dignity and respect for my own personal being in my life," said Bullock. "I was surprised at what was commonplace and not illegal. ... There were definitely sexual assaults that were happening in the facility that I was being held in. ... It touched me, how hopeless you can feel when you know that you can't get out and no one else can get in."

While Bullock herself was not a mother yet, most of the women she met in jail were. "All the women were moms. They were all normal people who were in there for traffic violations," she said. "I was like, this is crazy."

Andrews, now 30, felt the trauma of imprisonment through the experiences of her younger sister, who was incarcerated at a youth facility in Dorchester when Andrews was in college. As she visited her sister and watched her mother struggle with substance abuse, Andrews was moved toward activism that addressed the injustices of being poor.

"For me, [activism] was a form of trying to make sense of the situation," said Andrews. "Why is my life like this? What happened in my mother's life?"

But the project didn't come together until both women became mothers themselves. Their daughters were born months apart, and the Prison Birth Project was born soon after them. About two years ago, when their daughters were still babies, Bullock and Andrews met at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference at Hampshire College. Both were moms and both had low-income backgrounds and experiences of incarceration that made them feel different from the older moms in Western Massachusetts, Andrews said. And the WCC had just opened.

"I remember looking at the newspaper on the day the jail opened," said Bullock. "They were moving the first transport of women from Ludlow to the new facility. I remember just reading that headline and just thinking, 'That's crazy,' and thinking, 'Some of these moms are postpartum moms just like I am.'"

Soon afterward, she met Andrews, who had been working as a food access activist and teaching farming to kids in Holyoke. The timing was perfect.

"I was just ready to get real about something," said Andrews. "Having a kid made me a bit more focused. It made things seem not as difficult."

*

Two years later, in a closet-sized office in Amherst jammed with desks and chairs, Andrews and Bullock are awash in budgets, binders and mailing labels. The day-to-day life of the Prison Birth Project is a mess of papers and half-finished plans. But Andrews and Bullock are doing the work they find most meaningful: making life a little more manageable for women in jail who are also mothers.

For this daunting task, the pair have a small budget (about $12,000 last year, mostly raised from private donations), a staff of about 25 volunteers, a spirit of determination and a sense that their cause is just. The Peace Development Fund, a nonproft with offices in Amherst and San Francisco, agreed to fiscally sponsor the group by collecting all donations for them. Bullock and Andrews each receive a stipend of about $500 a month for what generally adds up to full-time work. With that, they have to support their own families and find time for themselves. But they're not planning on giving up—or even taking a vacation—anytime soon.

"A lot of women are reaching out there trying to do the right thing, but there's so many barriers," said Bullock. "Sometimes you just need someone who can support you. It's not like we can do anything about these women's situations, but what we can do is be a supportive person for her and help her navigate what's going on in her life."

"Mothers aren't supported. Incarcerated mothers aren't even seen," said Andrews. "And with the images of welfare mothers—she's not even seen as a legitimate mother. And nobody cares about addicts. I have all of this rage. I have all of this energy in it, I guess."

That energy has taken them a long way in two years. Bullock and Andrews have created a curriculum that includes testimonies from women who have readjusted to life after incarceration. The group has committees dedicated to childcare, materials, fundraising and research—for finding answers to questions women might have while they're in jail or after they get out.

Getting out of jail can be a whole new struggle, Adkins said. When she felt overwhelmed by the bills, the pediatrician visits, the requirements for parole and probation, the school meetings, she called Bullock or Andrews for support.

Now Adkins speaks about her experiences alongside Bullock and Andrews with her kids in tow. At a recent speaking engagement at Hampshire College, she and another former inmate shared what they had learned from incarceration. Adkins said being incarcerated taught her not to take her freedom for granted. "We now know that there are people in this world who hold the key to our freedom," she said.

More information about the Prison Birth Project is available at http://theprisonbirthproject.org/."

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