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Alabama Prison Birth Project launches outreach for pregnant inmates at Tutwiler Prison for Women

Updated: May. 23, 2017 at 1:26 PM CDT
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WETUMPKA, AL (WBRC) - When Ashley Brown came to Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women last year, she found out she was eight weeks pregnant. Brown, 26, has a 3-year-old son, but being pregnant in prison was a new and painful experience. The hardest part has been enduring the separation from her little boy.

"I feel like I let everybody down," said Brown. "It's not just you that's getting locked up, everybody is locked up with you. Your children, they need you," she said.

The needs of incarcerated mothers like Brown are getting some long overdue attention at Tutwiler Prison. A new monthly support group for expecting inmates is part of culture change at the prison, born out of a settlement with the Department of Justice (DOJ). WBRC reported on other reforms at the prison this month when we were granted an exclusive tour of the prison. Alabama's Department of Corrections (ADOC) reached an agreement with the DOJ in 2014 after its investigation uncovered decades of inmate abuse and poor conditions.

A monthly support group run by "Alabama Prison Birth Project" was modeled on a similar program in Minnesota. It began 15 months ago at Tutwiler, and even though pregnant inmates only represent about 2% of Tutwiler's population, the program has the blessing of ADOC Deputy Commissioner of women's services, Dr. Wendy Williams.

"The baby didn't ask for their parent to be in this situation, so I think if for no other reason, it's the right thing to do for the baby," said Dr. Williams.

When WBRC attended the group in early May, 14 inmates squeezed into a trailer with lavender-painted walls, located behind the main prison. The trailer normally provides housing for juvenile inmates, but while empty, was used as classroom space at the overcrowded prison. Most of the women who attended were pregnant, but some had already given birth and came for community support. Ashley Brown said the group helps calm fears and gives confidence to these women facing an uncertain situation.

"I feel like when I'm here, I'm not in prison," Brown explained. "I like that with us being pregnant, we don't get into it with each other, we try to help each other," she said.

During the 90-minute meeting, doula and registered nurse Erin Brown led discussions on everything from breastfeeding and labor pains, to nutrition and child care. The volunteers also provided a fresh meal for the inmates that included strawberries, raw vegetables with hummus and boiled eggs. Many of the women are receiving prenatal care for the first time, and some are experiencing their first sober pregnancy. Erin Brown said their effort is about honoring the humanity of these women, no matter what they did to end up in prison.

"Every mother deserves to be treated like a mother and that's the biggest thing," said Brown.

"Whatever their past is, they still have their story to tell and they have the opportunity to make change," she said.

The most painful aspect the women face is the inevitable separation from their newborns after they give birth at a Montgomery hospital. Before that happens, the women work with the prison social worker to develop a plan for their babies. Some assign guardianship to relatives, and other babies are cared for at the Adullum House, a ministry that serves incarcerated women and their children in Alabama.

Volunteers try to help the inmates work through the turmoil of emotions that comes with leaving their babies and returning to prison.

"Research says that if you can confront that and say 'today is the day I say goodbye to my baby and this is my farewell,' and give honor to that moment, that can be very healing," said Erin Brown.

Inmate Ashley Brown was on probation for a 2009 robbery conviction when Huntsville Police arrested her in November 2016, for driving under the influence. Her probation was revoked and she was sent to Tutwiler. Now she's hoping to be released before her baby girl is due June 9, 2017. She said her father is keeping her three-year-old son while she completes her sentence and he'll keep her infant daughter if she has to give birth while still incarcerated.

"I plan on never coming back here again," Brown said. "I'm going to focus on what I really need to focus on, which is getting myself together for my children," she said.

ADOC is hoping to allow weekly support meetings in the future and to one day allow doulas to accompany prisoners to the hospital when they give birth. The project receives no state funding and is looking for donors to help them expand their mission to breastfeeding and postpartum support.

If you'd like to help, the website is www.prisonbirth.org.

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