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Pregnancy and Motherhood Behind Bars Explored in 'Tutwiler'

A watchtower in the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama. | From "America ReFramed: Tutwiler"

In the latest documentary of “America ReFramed,” viewers meet Misty, a 36-year-old woman, during her last week of pregnancy. The catch? She is six months into serving a three-year prison sentence at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama. She will only have 24 hours with her newborn, whom she names Elijah, before he is taken away to be raised in a private group home, and she returns to prison.

Misty’s experience is akin to those of many other pregnant incarcerated women who give birth in prison. “Tutwiler,” a documentary short by Frontline and The Marshall Project, provides a window to an often unrealized perspective — women tackling pregnancy and motherhood while carrying the weight of their past decisions behind bars.

Notoriously listed as one of the worst women prisons in the U.S. in 2013, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women had far from a stellar reputation.

A critical 2014 federal investigation uncovered evidence of frequent and severe staff-on-prisoner sexual violence. Corrections officers had beaten, raped and harassed women for nearly two decades and manipulated women into performing sexual favors. Women universally expressed that they feared their safety.

Subsequently, a 2015 federal mandate required Tutwiler to reform its culture and practices to ensure women are protected from sexual violence and abuse.

In part of that reformative effort, Tutwiler began its support for pregnant inmates through the Alabama Prison Birth Project (APBP) in 2016. Women are the fastest growing prison population in the U.S., growing twice as fast as men, and each year, thousands of them are pregnant. Up to 80 percent of incarcerated women in this 2019 study report being sexually active with men before their incarceration.

As seen in the documentary, the APBP’s services include weekly visits to Tutwiler to supply healthy meals and host a birthing care group for prenatal and postpartum support. The group offers pertinent information at each meeting — tips for healthy eating, healthy birth practices, smoking reduction and cessation, how to hold one’s newborn baby, and more. Journaling activities and pregnancy books and resources are also provided.

Most of the women in these programs are on drug-related charges and have histories of substance abuse.

Pregnant inmate Misty sits in the center of a room with a cake celebrating her soon newborn baby in front of her, with fellow inmates sitting around her writing on pieces of paper. | From "America ReFramed: Tutwiler"
Pregnant inmate Misty sits in the center of a room with a cake celebrating her soon newborn baby in front of her, with fellow inmates sitting around her writing on pieces of paper. | From "America ReFramed: Tutwiler"

Since women in custody are not allowed familial support in the birthing room, the APBP also assigns each expectant mother a doula. Doulas are not medically trained nor perform any medical procedures — they are solely to provide nurturing and emotional support for the mother through the process of labor, delivery and the few days postpartum.

A doula’s presence is all the more important given that women have just 24 hours with their newborn before they’re sent back to Tutwiler to serve their remaining time. Their babies either end up with relatives, in foster care, or in a private group home called Adullam House, which leads to APBP’s third service, the Mother’s Milk Initiative.

Any breast milk that newborn babies need from their mothers is shipped to them from Tutwiler, where their mothers pump breast milk in a lactation room in the facility.

As they serve the rest of their sentences, women create video recordings of themselves reading a book of their choice, and write messages in the books to their children.

This distanced sort of motherhood, surmounted by guilt from their past decisions that brought them to prison in the first place, takes a visible toll on the mothers of Tutwiler who constantly express their worries about their newborns’ health and well-being. Distressed, they wonder how their children are doing, and whether they’re calling someone else “mom.”

Some dread giving birth entirely, knowing that delivering their babies also signifies no longer having them with them. One woman says it “makes you feel empty.”

A pregnant woman in prison uniform places a hand over her belly. | From "America ReFramed: Tutwiler"
A pregnant woman in prison uniform places a hand over her belly. | From "America ReFramed: Tutwiler"

For these mothers, the nearly immediate separation from their babies, depriving a mother-child bond, is a major stressor to their mental health. Relatedly, higher rates of mental health problems exist among incarcerated women, as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice. And mandatory standards of care don’t exist for pregnant women in prison, which only exacerbate problems like anxiety and postpartum depression.

This lack of care could be traced to how there are no systematic reports on pregnancy frequencies and outcomes in U.S. prisons.

A 2019 study published in The American Journal of Public Health brought this lack of hard data to light when it was the first published collection of that data since 2002. According to the report, the end of 2016 saw more than 111,000 pregnant inmates, a nearly 750 percent increase since 1980.

Researchers noted their concerns that due to the scarcity of data and data collection, the correctional system cannot adapt to the needs of the growing population of pregnant inmates, consequently burying physical and psycho-sociological issues that go unaddressed. One offshoot of those issues is the greater likelihood of children of those incarcerated to also land themselves in prison.

The APBP’s mission, and as of other prison birth organizations, is to diminish those issues by working to create a community-based alternative in which babies and incarcerated mothers are not separated.

But as things are currently, inmates like Misty will carry out the rest of their sentences until they have the chance to reunite with the children they gave life to behind bars.

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