Making a difference for pregnant and lactating incarcerated people

This is Chauntel Norris, CLC, a DONA trained doula, and Lamaze trained Childbirth Educator, on her way to hand deliver mothers’ milk to newborns after collection at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala. In cases where babies live far from the prison, Norris ships the milk overnight.

In her role as a doula through the Alabama Prison Birth Project, Norris coordinates the Mother’s Milk Initiative.  

She along with a team of four other doulas, serve inmates at Tutwiler where they also lead a weekly childbirth education class and serve family-style, nutritious meals. 

“We come around, and we serve them, and it’s really an hour and a half for them to step outside of the prison and just be moms, enjoy each other’s company and just talk about mom stuff,” Norris recounts. 

In terms of infant feeding, for many of the moms at Tutwiler, Norris begins, breast/chestfeeding is something totally new to them.

“So we talk about what might make it a good idea,” Norris says. 

And the number one driver for inmates to provide milk for their babies is connection. It’s something that only they can provide for their babies, regardless of being separated. 

“The majority of women want to be good mothers regardless of their circumstances, so  anything they can to do maintain a bond, they will do,” Norris says. 

That’s shown by the seventy six percent of moms who have chosen to participate in the Mother’s Milk Initiative.   

“They’re all success stories and I’m proud of everyone who participates in our program,” Norris says. “I’m most excited when moms are able to provide the majority of milk for their baby.”

She recalls one mother who sends enough milk home for her baby that only two supplemental bottles of formula are needed per week. This mother’s goal is to exclusively provide her own milk, so she has coordinated adding extra pumping time to increase her production.  

“It’s not the amount that matters, it’s their energy. It reinvigorates me,” Norris shares.   

The Alabama Prison Birth Project somewhat recently merged with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project and is in the process of expanding their program, training more doulas and lactation care providers. In fact, Tutwiler’s Director of Nursing is a CLC.

Beth Shelburne reported that “Six years ago, Tutwiler made headlines as one of the most dangerous prisons in the nation.” 

After a federal investigation uncovered decades of inmate abuse and poor conditions, Shelburne goes on, Dr. Wendy Williams, Deputy Commissioner for Women’s Services at the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) helped implement gender responsive programs specifically designed for women. [https://www.mysuncoast.com/2018/11/16/alabama-womens-prison-opens-first-of-its-kind-lactation-room/

Norris says that while she didn’t start work with Tutwiler at the height of the abuse and poor conditions, she’s been able to observe some of the positive shift. 

One thing she’s noticed is that there are a lot of women working there.

“When you have women in charge of taking care of women, and someone who actually cares, then change is created,” Norris explains. 

 She also senses community building within Tutwiler. 

“The women that we serve are affected by us, but when we walk down the halls the other women know who we are,” she says.  

Exchanges between Norris, her colleagues and officers have demonstrated an appreciation for their work too. Officers have admitted that they’re not equipped to handle birth and that they’re glad the program exists.

Alabama Prison Birth Project is making a big impact in a small community, but their efforts are part of a much bigger need. 

Female imprisonment is on the rise in the U.S. In fact, it’s sky-rocketed; over the past 30 years or so, female incarceration has gone up 750 percent, Norris explains. 

She goes on to provide some context behind the statistics about female imprisonment.  

  • The median income of women the year prior to their incarceration was 14 thousand dollars. 
  • Two thirds of incarcerated women have children under 18. “That is a huge driver of incarceration, coming from an impoverished background. They’re doing what they have to do to survive. [They’re] trying to figure how to literally keep their families alive.” 
  • Ninety percent of incarcerated women have endured physical or sexual abuse, often during early childhood.
  • Some incarceration is drug related. “A lot of these women have addiction issues; perhaps they might be better served by treatment.”  
  • By race, there are variations in female incarceration. African American and Black individuals make up roughly 13 percent of the population, but we don’t see that reflected in the incarceration rates, Norris says. In 2017, blacks represented over 30 percent of the prison population. [https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/30/shrinking-gap-between-number-of-blacks-and-whites-in-prison/]  “For people of color, law enforcement is a progression of slavery in our country,” Norris explains. 

She directs attention to several resources on this phenomenon:

Norris encourages finding out what’s going on in your local correctional facilities. Are pregnant inmates getting prenatal care? Are they shackled during birth? How is their nutrition? Norris reminds us that doula support improves health outcomes which help save medical costs for correctional facilities. 

Hold people accountable, she continues. And have conversations with local birth workers to put together a collaborative plan on how to make an impact. 

In their partnership with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, Norris and colleagues are curating a curriculum to train people to become prison doulas. This project will roll out in the next year. 

In the meantime, you can stay up to date with their mission via the following channels:

Alabama Prison Birth Project contact and social media outlets 

Minnesota Prison Doula Project connect page 

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