Baby on Board While Behind Bars

GREENFIELD — At any given time, 6 to 8 percent of incarcerated women are pregnant, local women’s rights activists say.

Jailed women too often lack physical and emotional support, suffer from postpartum depression and are at risk of losing their child to adoption due to the nature of incarceration, advocates say.

Once women walk out of the hospital doors, there is no system in place to address their needs or help in their transition as new mothers, according to the Prison Birth Project, a western Massachusetts-based volunteer group that has been advocating since 1982 to improve access to reproduction services for incarcerated women.

By the end of this year, the Prison Birth Project will hold support groups for women who have been affected by the criminal justice system, substance abuse and recovery, or whose children are involved in the state Department of Children and Families with the support of a grant from the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, according to co-founder Marianne Bullock of Greenfield.

The Prison Birth Project provides support, education, advocacy and training for people at the intersection of the criminal justice system and motherhood. Their work is based both in the state’s Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee, outside with formerly incarcerated women, and with state and national advocacy groups.

Overall, the goal of the project is to set new standards for incarcerated women’s health care, to create a strong core of leaders with personal experience of the issues, and to increase the number of people who adopt a new perspective in support of all mothers.

The meeting group will likely be held in community spaces in Greenfield, Northampton and the Springfield area. There is no permanent space yet.

The charge of the meeting group would be to offer support to women and also to start the next educational campaign with issues decided on by the participants.

The meeting groups are part of the next phase for the project.

In the next five years, the nonprofit aims to offer a transitional house for women getting out of jail and for their children.

The project is the only organization of its kind in the country to offer support to incarcerated mothers, Bullock said.

The project offers emotional support and access to birthing options for mothers.

Activities include childbirth education classes and full spectrum doula services from a trauma-informed perspective, including abortion, pregnancy, birthing, lactation, and postpartum support, for all who are pregnant at the Women’s Correctional Center.

The project also advocates for women by writing letters of support at parental rights hearings.

The nonprofit was instrumental last April, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL Pro-Choice, an organization that educates the public on issues affecting reproductive issues, in pushing for the state to ban the restraining of inmates during labor and delivery, a practice that some lawmakers and activists were trying to ban for a decade.“It’s really just barbaric,” said Bullock. “If you’ve ever given birth, it’s horrifying that you’re already not in control of your body when you’re in labor and then to be constrained, it’s terrifying.

“The hardest thing is prisons are not made to be housing women and mothers. There’s no other thought process other than when you’re transporting someone you put them in restraints,” Bullock said. “We needed legislation to say you can’t restrain them in active labor.”

The new anti-shackling bill would allow restraints only if the prisoner poses a safety or flight risk, and set minimum requirements for prenatal and postpartum care.

Massachusetts became one of 19 states to outlaw the practice of shackling pregnant prisoners.

Women’s rights in jails are gaining widespread attention after the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” a comedy-drama based on a true story, shed light on some of the issues women face while in prison. The popular series also lightly touched on pregnancy in jail and the issues mothers face in getting adequate nutrition and emotional support after having to give their infant up to a caregiver.