In Olympia, Washington, state representatives serving in the Washington State House of Representatives during the new 2018 legislative session found themselves voting on a potential new law that would mandate state prisons and jails to accommodate pregnant prisoners and make available volunteer midwives and doulas for the incarcerated pregnant population.

Estimates are that between 6-10% of the prison population is pregnant at any time. There are very few programs that allow new parents to keep their newborns with them after birth. Washington State has one such program, The Residential Parenting Program located at the Washington Corrections Center for Women at Purdy Prison near Gig Harbor, Washington. The program has been in place since 1999 and there are limited spaces and specific requirements to qualify for placement. Most people who give birth while incarcerated have their babies removed within 24 hours of birth to be placed with approved family members or in foster care.

In addition to the physical demands of giving birth, there is the significant emotional component of having one’s baby removed to be cared for elsewhere until the parent can join their baby after being released from prison. The benefits of doula care have long been recognized and accepted by researchers worldwide. Shorter labors, fewer cesareans, more satisfaction with the birth experience and less postpartum depression are some of the benefits. The people who give birth while in prison are more at risk for depression and other mood disorders common in the postpartum period. Having a doula support them prenatally, during birth and then in the weeks after birth can really go a long way to helping the birthing people to recover emotionally from birthing and then not being able to parent their newborn.

There are some positive results from similar national programs. The Minnesota Prison Doula Project has ascertained that both the pregnancies and the babies of incarcerated parents are healthier than those who do not participate in the program. Having the opportunity to be cared for by midwives and doulas helps set the participants up for a birth experience that will be more satisfying overall. This pre-birth, birth and postpartum support can help positive feelings carry over into positive behavior after giving birth, setting inmates up for success, more good behavior, a connection with their children and a desire to remain out of prison once released.

WA State House Bill HB2016, if signed into law, will permit certified midwives and doulas to provide prenatal care and counseling for pregnant inmates, as well as assist them during labor and childbirth. There have been unsuccessful attempts to pass something similar in WA state in the past, but this year, the bill was passed unanimously by all 96 representatives present during the vote in the House. It now moves on to the Senate, where hopes are it will be met with the same success and made into law!

WA State Representative Richard Debolt (R) commented on the bill:

“Women incarcerated when they’re pregnant give birth in hospitals, and within a very quick period of time, the baby is taken away from them. Without proper guidance and services, they become very bad inmates because they lost something that is a part of them and they feel traumatized,”

There were midwives and doulas in the galley when the bill was voted on in the House, and the group received a standing ovation from the entire House for their efforts. For those present, it must have been very satisfying to be recognized in such a way.

This bill, along with the the efforts of those birth professionals who have worked so hard to see it move successfully through the WA State House and Senate, is an incredible advocacy effort on behalf of incarcerated parents and their children. It takes time, energy and patience for something like this to move forward, and to see it pass with 100% support of all those representatives in attendance is heartwarming indeed. Stay tuned for an update on the bill as it moves through the Senate. You can also follow along on the bill’s progress here.

Congratulations to those advocates who are working to make this vision a reality for pregnant prisoners. Best wishes as the bill moves forward. Does your state, province or community have a similar program? What do you know about its success? Would you be willing to support something like this in your community? Share your thoughts in the comments below.