Reproductive Justice and the Justice System: A Talk by the Minnesota Doula Project

17 May 2018

On Thursday, March 29, the Broom Fellow co-sponsored an event with Student Advocates for Reproductive Choice (SARC). In line with the Broom Fellow’s focus on social inequality, Erica Gerrity, Program Director and founder of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, Raelene Baker, Program Coordinator for the organization, and Mariah, a woman who has been incarcerated in Minnesota, were invited to campus to discuss reproductive justice for incarcerated women.

According to Maggie Goldberger, co-president of SARC, the organization has been focusing more on intersectionality in their events this year — specifically, issues of race, incarceration, and the whole spectrum of reproductive care. They felt that the Minnesota Prison Doula Project embodied this intersectionality. Over 75 people gathered in the Athenaeum to listen to Erica, Raelene, and Mariah speak about their work.

The Minnesota Prison Doula Project was founded by Erica, and, with the support of trained doulas, provides parenting and pregnancy support to incarcerated pregnant people and mothers in county correctional facilities and Minnesota’s only women’s state prison Shakopee. According to the project’s mission statement, their primary goal is “to nurture healthy relationships and increase parenting confidence and skills.”

Throughout the presentation, the historical legacy of the “war on drugs” and the consequences of mass incarceration, particularly for women, were prominent themes.Public awareness of prisons tends to focus on men’s experiences, since men are incarcerated at much higher rates than women. However, the rate of female incarceration has been increasing, and women and female-bodied people face distinct challenges in prison.

Erica and Raelene discussed how these consequences are initially evident in sentencing patterns. Many of the women Erica and Raelene work with were charged for criminal behavior that their male partner was involved in. Once in prison, too, women face particular challenges. For example, in Minnesota’s women’s prisons, all types of touch — even if consensual or for comfort — are interpreted as sexual harassment or assault, and punished harshly. This means that incarcerated women cannot hug or physically comfort one another. The implications of this “no touch” policy for mental health and social well-being are grim.

Further, the vast majority of incarcerated women have children on the outside, and many are pregnant while serving time. This means that they must navigate the stress and responsibilities of caring for their children while incarcerated. Although by law, all prisoners are entitled to the same quality of health care — including reproductive health care — as they would receive in the outside community, in practice, Erica and Raelene noted this is frequently not the case.

Women often have great difficulty accessing adequate healthcare, and particularly accessing abortion services. Erica and Raelene described how, despite the fact that abortion is legal, and prisons are legally required to allow incarcerated women to have them, many jails and prisons attempt to keep women from getting abortions by ignoring their requests or putting off their appointments until it is too late to have an abortion.

Although the Minnesota Prison Doula Project focuses on pregnancy care, birth, and child care, Erica and Raelene described how, due to the lack of support for abortions within the prison, the doulas have sometimes served as resources for women considering abortion. The Minnesota Prison Doula Project has also been involved in lobbying Minnesota’s representatives and drafting policy that related to prison reproductive care. For example, members of the Doula Project have successfully lobbied the Minnesota state legislature to ban the practice of shackling incarcerated women before and after birth — a common practice in women’s prisons across the country.

In 2014, Minnesota passed anti-shackling legislation, and later expanded this law, becoming the first state to allow all incarcerated women to have a doula. If you’re interested in learning more about the work of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, check out their website. Learn more about SARC and the events they host by following their Facebook page.