Hard labor

Washington state prisons offer incarcerated mothers birth and parenting support.

Published June 4, 2008 4:00PM (EDT)

For many women, a doula -- nonmedical birth and/or pre- and postpartum assistant -- is both a godsend and a luxury. But birth-assistance programs are sprouting up to serve women in disadvantaged communities (such as this one in Chicago) -- including one prison community in Washington state. As the Seattle Times recently reported, the Washington Corrections Center, "which has gained national recognition for its programs for pregnant inmates, is also believed to be the only prison in the U.S. to offer expectant mothers and those who already have given birth access to trained doulas."

These women do far more than hold mothers' hands and offer lavender-scented hankies during contractions. In fact, most of their interaction with the inmates is in weekly counseling sessions about prenatal worries, postpartum depression and child rearing under less than "normal," or optimum, circumstances. That is: The prison allows women with sentences of less than three years who give birth in prison to keep their children with them until the end of their sentence or until the child is 2 1/2.

"Experts believe the time together allows babies to bond with their mothers and leads to lower recidivism rates among inmates," the article says. The women in the prison's residential parenting program reportedly have a recidivism rate of about 15 percent, compared with 40 percent for women who are not in the program. "It's 24 hours a day being a mom, you learn so much," said one mother. "I love the program. It gives you a chance to learn how to be a mom and change how you used to be."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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