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Doulas in Pennsylvania Prisons: Successful Pilot Program on Track to Scale

Courtney was five months pregnant when she entered prison. It was her first time incarcerated and she was going to Muncy State Correctional Institution, one of two women’s prisons in Pa, the one that houses women’s death row.

She was afraid of what might happen to her and her baby.

“All that [was] new to me. Getting pregnant and not knowing what to expect was scary,” Courtney, who only wanted to use her first name for privacy reasons, said in a phone interview with SCI Muncy. “I was worried about the lack of health care here. I felt they wouldn’t care. I thought I would just be considered a criminal.

Fortunately, Courtney was selected to participate in a state pilot program that provides doula services to pregnant women behind bars. Doulas are trained professionals who provide physical, emotional, and informational support to people before and shortly after pregnancy.

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Funded by the Tuttleman Foundation and implemented with help from Williamsport, Pennsylvania-based Genesis Birth Services, the doula pilot project at SCI Muncy is the first step in expanding pregnancy and parenting support for women incarcerated in State Department correctional facilities, according to a news release announcing the program. Later this year, the DOC plans to expand the program to Cambridge Springs State Correctional Institution, the Commonwealth’s other women’s prison.

Gerria Coffee, the doula and educator behind Genesis Birth Services of Lycoming County, served as the working face of the program. So far she has been able to help seven women at SCI Muncy. The program for each woman lasts one year.

“When I got there, there was a room of incarcerated, postpartum, or pregnant women,” Coffee said. “We talked about their needs and their concerns. It was amazing to connect with these people. They clung to my every word. To this day, I remember seeing their eyes.

“A woman looked at me and said, ‘Can you be there [when I give birth]?’ – and I could.

Women incarcerated at SCI Muncy give birth in a hospital and usually spend 24 hours there before returning to prison, where they can spend a day in a medical facility before returning to their blocks. If the mother had a C-section, she typically stays in the hospital for 48 hours, according to the DOC. This only gives the mother the chance to breastfeed her child only once or twice before the baby is removed and placed in the care of a parent. (If a parent is unavailable, the newborn goes to Pa Child Protective Services.)

Because mothers must separate from their infants so quickly, some women choose not to breastfeed at all, Coffee said.

Courtney said she has very little time to bond with her baby and the whole process leaves both child and mother stigmatized.

“The baby is called ‘a prison baby,'” Courtney said. “I think they should think about the strength of mothers…I only had 24 hours before I was brought back here. I think mothers who are pregnant in prison are really, really brave.

Courtesy of Gerria Cafe

“For families, babies and mothers”

About 58,000 pregnant women are incarcerated each year in the United States, according to a 2021 study that found people in prison, jail or youth detention centers who are pregnant or postpartum generally lack policies and supportive practices.

For many, additional trauma occurs when they are shackled or handcuffed during childbirth; 82% of nurses in a 2018 study said they had personally observed the shack.

In Pennsylvania, where the number of incarcerated women has skyrocketed over the past half-century and increased 26% between 2000 and 2015, shackling was banned in 2010, despite women reporting it happening to them through after. Still, shackling is not normal procedure, said DOC press secretary Maria Bivens. Instead, Bivens said, health care and safety teams at SCI Muncy and SCI Cambridge Springs are working with outside hospitals to ensure the birthing experience is safe and secure for everyone involved.

Courtney said she was unchained when she gave birth to a healthy 7-pound girl on May 1. Coffee, the pilot program doula, held her hand and supported her through labor and delivery, as Courtney’s mother was not allowed to be there.

“She was my rock,” Courtney said.

Coffee comes to SCI Muncy every two weeks, although she does take calls from prisoners outside of those meeting times.

“I feel like it’s a confidence boost for us,” Courtney said of Coffee’s help. “It’s very therapeutic. We don’t get a lot of compassion here, and with this program, it really feels like family. It makes us feel like people.

Courtney said she suffered from pelvic pain and uncomfortable ankle swelling during pregnancy and still suffers from these conditions. The coffee taught her exercises that lessen the pain, as well as meditation and coping techniques, like writing about her feelings and focusing on her breathing, Courtney said.

She spoke to her mother and her baby girl on the phone and in limited video conferences. Just recently, her mother started bringing the baby for visits. Courtenay, who said she is incarcerated for a reason she cannot legally disclose, still has 2 to 6 years to serve.

As a doula, Coffee doesn’t get involved in how people ended up in their current position. She’s just trying to help.

“There are a million reasons people are in jail,” Coffee said. “Their charges are none of my business. My job is to provide physical support and emotional support and link it to resources, education. It’s heavy, and there were times when I got a little choked up,” Coffee said. “I pull myself together. It’s not about me… It’s invaluable to families, babies and moms.

Courtney said Coffee helped remind her that “we are not our mistakes.”

“He’s someone I can look up to, someone I can respect,” Courtney said. “She made this process so much easier. I’m very grateful.”