The Prison Birth Project (PBP) is a reproductive justice organization providing support, education, advocacy, and activism training to women at the intersection of the criminal justice system and motherhood. Women in our programs receive doula support, personal advocacy, and education in childbirth, nursing, undoing oppression, and organizing methods. Members attend conferences and organize for legislative change.
What is your role at PBP?
I am one of the Co-Founders of PBP and currently the Lead Doula, Administrative Coordinator and member of our collective decision making body at the "Leadership Circle."
What are some ways for people to get involved or make contributions?
We are an organization that relies heavily on volunteer participation and a large number of local donors. The best way to get involved in our work is to contact Lisa Andrews, our organizational support person. Volunteers in our organization do everything from offering doula support to incarcerated mothers and running Child Birth Education, to organizing house parties, benefits, and writing grants.
What are some of the organizations you have worked with in the past?
PBP collaborates with a number of other organizations. Fresh Start, a Holyoke NPO for people recovering from substance abuse issues refers pregnant women to our programs. Mother Woman trains our "Mothers Among Us" facilitators and plans to assist our anti-shackling work. We partner with the National Leadership Networking Initiative and the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference to offer workshops and receive interns. ACLU provides legal assistance for PBP clients and legal advocacy training for PBP staff and helped write the anti-shackling bill. Peace Development Fund mentors PBP in funding and political organizing, provides office and meeting space, and is our fiscal sponsor. We receive mentorship in grassroots organizing from WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling HerStory), which passed an anti-shackling bill last year in New York. Change.org offers media aid and social networking by managing email blasts and online petitions. The National Lawyers Guild is also part of our anti-shackling coalition and publishes writings of previously incarcerated women in their newsletters which are available in prisons and for the public.
What are some of the events you have helped organize?
We have organized a number of events to raise money and awareness about the issues we address including four "secret cafe" dinners, two clothing swaps, and an event called "Liberation": a night of spoken word and performance. We have spoken at the Northampton and Holyoke productions of The Vagina Monologs. Most recently, we spoke at the opening of "When the System Swallows You" an afternoon of performance taking an intimate glimpse into how incarceration affects families.
This year we also organizied two trainings with Tina Reynolds from WORTH--a training on passing an Anti-Shackling bill in Massachusetts and a Train the Trainers Training on the Herstory of Incarceration.
PBP members have given presentations at the 4th Academic and Health Policy Conference on Correctional Health, The Civil Liberties 7th & Public Policy Conference, Hampshire College, Smith College, Greenfield Community College, Mount Holyoke College, and UMass Amherst. We also participated in The New Leadership Networking Initiative Meeting of National and International Reproductive Justice Leaders, The 8th International Black Midwives and Healers Conference in Florida, and The United States Social Forum in Detroit.
What is one of your favorite stories about your work?
This is a short essay I wrote recently about the work I do. It's called "Support":
About once a month I send a letter. Sometimes, all it says is something along the lines of: “You are strong, you deserve the best in life, your spirit is free, you showed me how to rise above all the bad shit in this world, and you know your heart is full of resilience.” Sometimes it has updates, questions or concerns, but it always has that reminder of how strong they are.
Almost two years ago now I made a promise, to a mom, while she was pushing out her baby. I met her before she knew she was pregnant-- she was bright and cheery and had some hope that her sentence wouldn't be long. We remembered each other from one interaction so when she came to me two months later I felt like we had a connection. When she found out she was pregnant her mood turned darker. I saw her going inward, struggling with the oscillating emotions of pure joy and the utter inability to control her life, because she was incarcerated. By the time she was 8 months pregnant she was able to shift it again. She held on to some hope that a judge would be nice, let her off easy, let her be with her baby. Her court date was set for the same day as her due date; she still hadn’t had the baby so they postponed it.
She held on to that baby for two more weeks. Her labor was slow but steady and then petered out after transition when she was fully dilated. We all got a full night's sleep before she woke up in the morning and was ready to let go. She awoke fiery and fierce, ready to push.
Her labor was a microcosm of the roller-coaster of pregnancy. The ups, the downs. She said some things she really needed to say out loud, she cried, she danced and then she surrendered. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and uplifting, the same way most births are. She pushed and roared with everything in her, the baby crowned.. and then stopped. Totally stuck. Didn’t move an inch. Shoulder dystocia, like I had never seen before. I held her face during the four minutes of sheer terror where she was cut without anesthesia, when the baby didn’t cry, when she lost enough blood to need a transfusion. Our eyes were locked on each other. She said “I don’t deserve this.” My response was, “You are strong, you deserve the best in life, you can do this, your body and mind are resilient.” I said that over and over for twenty minutes, while they carried a blue baby away to resuscitate him, while they sewed up a full episiotomy and while they hooked her up to give her blood.
Thankfully, the baby was okay. The mama regained health and they spent twenty-four blissful hours together in a hospital room, him swaddled tight in a blanket and her with one ankle chained to the bed. I said those same things when she handed me the baby to give to the father who was not allowed to come in to the room. We sat in almost complete silence for two hours while we waited for her escort back to the jail, when the officer came back into the room with the shackles and 5-point restraint, she looked at me and said “You need to start saying those things,” as he locked her leg to leg, leg to wrist, wrist to wrist and around her empty belly. I said, “You deserve the best in life, your spirit is free, breathe deep and remember who you are, you are so resilient, you are bigger than all the bad in this place.” As we walked from the room through the halls of the hospital, her in bright orange and chained across leaky breasts, a deflated belly and twenty-something stitches down her perineum, I repeated the mantra.
A few days later she went to court. The trial lasted about a week. While the jury deliberated I said those things under my breath. The judge gave her twelve years. We both cried. When I saw her before they moved her, she said she didn’t think she would make it twelve years, that her heart was locked outside these walls and she knew she would never see that baby again. She asked me to send her letters, make sure I didn’t forget her. I asked her to be honest with me, let me know how to support her as the years go on, let me know what she really needs. When she first got there she sent me a letter that said she needed me to remind her those things, as much as possible.
When I came to this work, I was a trained doula, a mother, and someone who had been formerly incarcerated... but I really had no idea what I was doing. People always ask me to do trainings and I start to plan all the necessary information. Methadone dosage and information, supporting transitions from prison/group home/hospital/home for women in recovery, basic labor information. Then I go to a birth or a one-on-one meeting and I realize that each parent teaches me how to support them individually. Most of my life has been spent walking into spaces that I didn’t feel I was prepared to be in. But births never feel that way. To support people, you just have to listen, step outside your judgments and ego and just be with each other. People ask me, “How do you support an incarcerated mother?” I have a list of tangible things you can do, but the most real thing to do, is be their friend. Share with them in the joy and pain as they go through the transitions of parenting and life. Don’t let the walls get so thick that you don’t know what to say anymore or how to help. Our job on the outside is to constantly be breaking down that wall that isolates and segregates in whatever ways we can, and sometimes, the best way to break it down is through authentic human interaction, love and care.
What are some of your goals for the future?
Some of our goals for this coming year are to offer women from our programs training to become doulas, childbirth educators and Mothers Among Us (MAU), group facilitators, and begin one-on-one mentoring to prepare for leadership positions within PBP. We hope to have at least one new member of our leadership body at the Leadership Circle who has direct experience with the issues we address by the end of the year. We hope that we will retain many program participants as volunteers and staff people for our programs. We also have a goal of passing a bill to ban the practice of shackling during labor in the state of Massachusetts by 2014!
Are there any upcoming events or programs you would like to mention?
We will be hosting a big event in early October to celebrate the work we've done over the last 4 1/2 years. More information on that should be out soon; but it is sure to include a very delicious local-food dinner, live music, and some very moving words from folds who have participated in our programs.
To contact Lisa Andrews you can reach her at: Lisa@theprisonbirthproject.org
To make a donation online please visit: www.theprisonbirthproject.org/donate