Creating space for incarcerated parents

When Sierra Williams was 15 years old, she had a doula present at her birth. Inspired by the experience, she became certified as a doula six years ago and has been working with incarcerated and convicted pregnant and parenting people since then. 

Most recently, Williams has carved out space at a monthly support group for parents who have been recently released from correctional facilities or for those who have been put on probation in the greater Minneapolis area . She says the purpose of her group is to foster encouragement and create positive energy. Williams typically sees about five to eight women in her group each month. 

“The women who come feel so fulfilled when they leave the space of being with like-minded people who have been through similar experiences,” Williams says. 

Williams works to match up support group participants with peer supporters. 

“Women will often come out [of correctional facilities] and tell me that they don’t have anyone positive in their lives,” she explains. 

The peer mentor model helps foster healthy bonds. 

Williams stresses the importance of creating safety nets for women once they have been released from jail.

“That’s where you are really tested in survival,” she says. 

It’s difficult for women to secure jobs with convictions on their records, which in turn makes it challenging to afford housing. Many of these women are also enduring other legal battles like child custody arrangements. 

Williams helps participants secure alcohol and drug abuse therapy, provides employment resources, expungement information, and resources for helping with child custody battles. 

She also runs a “clothing closet” where she helps provide community members with things like baby items, maternity clothes and gas cards. 

Participants appreciate the thought Williams puts into her own appearance; she wears bright, cheery colors and t-shirts with motivational sayings on them. 

“If you feel good externally, you’ll start feeling good internally,” she says. 

Williams reminds us that overall, the crimes that women commit are crimes of survival, and that Black women especially sometimes act through intergenerational trauma in a cycle of intergenerational incarceration. 

“As a society there is something wrong,” she says.  “No woman should be feeling like she has to commit a crime to survive in the world.” 

In an interview with Healthy Children Project’s Liz Westwater and Judy Blatchford, Carolyn Beth Sufrin, A.M., M.D., Ph.D. author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars expounds on what pregnant women are incarcerated for.

“…At least 70 percent of women incarcerated are there for nonviolent offenses,” she begins. 

Sufrin goes on: “Many of them are there on minor charges, and they cannot afford their bail. Then they wrack up fines for not being able to pay and then it compounds. 

Some people are arrested for petty charges of theft. One woman whom I talk about in my book had been in and out of jail over 80 times in her adult life, and all for non violent charges. 

One of the times during her pregnancy, she was there for shoplifting some Dove soap from a CVS. She had a prior criminal record because of the way she was profiled as a Black woman who lived on the streets so she was thrown in jail. For her, it was not an eventful thing. This was what she was used to.”

Sufrin adds, “This is part of the larger story of mass incarceration in the U.S. This has been looked at by a number of sociologists and academics to show that the rise in incarceration rates that we have seen over the last four decades does not correspond to a rise in violent crime and corresponds much more to issues around criminalization of poverty and locking up poor people for various conditions of their lives as well as institutional racism.” 

Williams started a podcast called Everybody Has A Story which features people’s journeys through the legal system. 

Now, having completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course, Williams will also be able to help parents with infant feeding support. 

“It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” Williams says of her training. 

“The instructors were both well-organized, involved and so helpful.”

She says she is excited to pass on the knowledge she gained. 

To support Williams’ work and learn more about her support group, you can email her at sierrassparkleshop@gmail.com.

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