Courtney was five months pregnant when she entered prison. It was her first time experiencing incarceration, and she was going into State Correctional Institution Muncy, one of Pennsylvania’s two female prisons, the one that houses women’s death row.
She was scared about what might happen to her and her baby.
“All this [was] new to me. To come pregnant and not know what to expect was scary,” Courtney, who only wanted to use her first name for privacy reasons, said in a phone interview from SCI Muncy. “I was worried about inadequate health care here. I felt they wouldn’t care. I thought I would just be seen as a criminal.”
Luckily, Courtney was selected to participate in a state pilot program that provides doula services to people who are pregnant behind bars. Doulas are trained professionals who offer physical, emotional, and informational support to people before and shortly after pregnancy.
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Funded through the Tuttleman Foundation and implemented with the help of of the Pa. Department of Human Services and Williamsport, Pa.-based Genesis Birth Services, the doula pilot at SCI Muncy is the first step in expanding pregnancy and parenting support for women incarcerated in state Department of Correction facilities, according to a press release announcing the program. Later this year, the DOC plans to expand the program to State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs, the commonwealth’s other women’s prison.
Gerria Coffee, the doula and educator behind Lycoming County’s Genesis Birth Services, has been the working face of the program. So far she has been able to help seven women at SCI Muncy. The program for each woman runs for a year.
“When I got there, there was a room of incarcerated women, either postpartum or pregnant,” Coffee said. “We talked about their needs and concerns. It was amazing to connect with these folks. They were hanging onto my every word. To this day, I can remember seeing their eyes.
“One woman was looking at me and said, ‘Can you be there [when I give birth]?’ — and I was able to.”
Women incarcerated at SCI Muncy give birth in a hospital and typically spend 24 hours there before returning to the prison, where they may stay for a day in a medical setting before returning to their blocks. If the mother has had a cesarean section, she typically remains in the hospital for 48 hours, according to the DOC. This only gives the mother the chance to breastfeed her infant once or twice before the baby is taken away and given to a relative. (If a relative is not available, the newborn goes to Pa. Child Welfare Services.)
Because the mothers have to separate so quickly from their infants, some women choose not to breastfeed at all, Coffee said.
Courtney said she had very little time to bond with her baby, and that the whole process leaves the child and mother stigmatized.
“The baby is called ‘a prison baby’,” Courtney said. “I think that they should think about the strength of the mothers… I only had 24 hrs before I was brought back here. I think mothers who are pregnant in prison are really, really brave.”
‘For the families and the babies and moms’
About 58,000 pregnant women are incarcerated each year in the U.S., according to a 2021 study that found people in jail, prison, or youth detention facilities who are pregnant or postpartum generally lacked supportive policies and practices.
For many, additional trauma comes when they are shackled or handcuffed during childbirth; 82% of nurses in a 2018 study said they had personally observed shackling.
In Pennsylvania, where the number of incarcerated women has skyrocketed over the past half-century and rose 26% from 2000 to 2015, shackling was prohibited in 2010, though women have reported it happening to them after that. Still, shackling is not the normal procedure, said DOC Press Secretary Maria Bivens. Instead, Bivens said, the health care and security teams at SCI Muncy and SCI Cambridge Springs work with outside hospitals to ensure the birthing experience is safe and secure for everyone involved.
Courtney said she was not shackled when she delivered a healthy 7-pound daughter May 1. Coffee, the doula for the pilot program, held her hand and provided support during the labor and delivery, since Courtney’s mother was not allowed to be there.
“She was my rock,” Courtney said.
Coffee comes to SCI Muncy every other week, although she takes calls from prisoners outside of those meeting times.
“I feel like it’s a confidence booster for us,” Courtney said about Coffee’s assistance. “It’s very therapeutic. Here we don’t get very much compassion, and with that program, it feels real family like. It makes us feel like people.”
Courtney said she suffered pelvic pain and uncomfortable swelling in her ankles during the pregnancy and is still suffering from these conditions. Coffee has taught her exercises that ease the pain, as well as meditation and coping skills, such as writing about her feelings and concentrating on her breathing, Courtney said.
She’s been talking to her mother and baby girl on the phone and during limited video conferences. Just recently, her mother has started to bring the baby to visit. Courtney, who said she is incarcerated for a reason she legally can’t disclose, still has 2 to 6 years left in her sentence.
As a doula, Coffee doesn’t get involved with how people ended up in their current position. She just tries to help.
“There’s a million reasons why people are in prison,” Coffee said. “Their charges aren’t my business. My job is to provide physical support and emotional support and to connect them to resources, education. It’s heavy, and there are times when I’ve gotten a little choked up,” Coffee said. “I pull myself together. It’s not about me…This is priceless for the families and the babies and moms.”
Courtney said Coffee has helped remind her that “we are not our mistakes.”
“She’s someone I can look up to, someone I can respect,” Courtney said. “She’s made this process so much easier. I am very grateful.”