I was obsessed with Orange is the New Black in college. Still kind of am! However, now there is no Poussay, it makes it hard to watch because I’m always thinking about how great it would be to have her back. Regardless, the show is a smash hit! It’s real, it’s gritty and it shows a side of women that, historically, has been hidden in the shadows. It gave us a peak into the lives of women in prison, their various stories, how complicated it can all be and how friendship, self-love and determination can make or break a situation. However, I appreciate the show for many more reasons than the entertainment factor. One of those reasons is because it addresses a population of women whose stories are not routinely told. Hidden behind jokes, crazy antics and large personalities, is a gem of a show that shows what everyone would rather ignore, and it does so in a way that we can’t ignore, heck, we can’t stop watching.
Though we love the the crew and their antics, Crazy Eyes being my personal favorite, there are women, in prison right now that are facing a harsher reality that doesn’t have to so. Currently, it is legal in some states to restrain pregnant prisoners who can be and are usually forced to go through labor and delivery while shackled to a bed. Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, a medical anthropologist and an OB-GYN at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine—delivered the baby of one such prisoner and was appalled by the inhumanity of it. Her recent book, Jailcare: Finding The Safety Net for Women Behind Bars, explores the experiences of pregnant women who gave birth while incarcerated. In a recent interview, she spoke about the current state of prison births, the problems of impoverished pregnant women, and how we must reform this male-dominated justice system that often fails to attend to women’s concerns, most times in the most basic of ways.
But wait, there’s more. We have no idea how frequent prison births are. Dr. Sufrin is spearheading research to understand how often this is happening and the lasting effects of such a traumatic experience for the woman and her child, however, information is few and far between and it’s difficult to find other studies who have looked at similar parameters. She summarizes like so, “The only data we have comes from a 1997 survey by the American Correctional Association of about 47 state prison systems, and that reported 1,400 births. But that was a long time ago. People just really don’t think about women who are incarcerated. We have zero systematic information on how many incarcerated women have miscarriages, abortions, stillbirths—basic vital statistics.”
She goes on to say that the isolation and separation from one’s baby that they depicted in OITNB is very accurate. But the experiences of these women are highly variable and depend on what state they are in, whether they are in a prison or a jail, and what the local policies are. There are only 22 states, now at least 23, that prohibit the shackling of women in childbirth, and even some of those states allow it during transport. Apart from the fact that this practice is inhumane, there are very clear medical risks involved, which have to do with the need of women to move about freely, both for pain control but also in case of an emergency. However, the better question is more common-sense than anything. What is the risk that a woman is a threat to society or a flight risk in between painful contractions? But from the custody side, they see everything as a potential risk that she is going to run off or be a risk to public safety. But that’s all laced with the punitive aspect of chains as well—there’s that subtle, “Suffer for your actions.” vibe. It speaks to the way the system is set up to view incarcerated people as less than human, and to apply the same logic to a pregnant female prisoner that they might to male prisoners.
Though the picture may seem bleak, however all is not lost. That’s where you, and me and the rest of our communities come in. To spread knowledge in order for us to come together and fix it. This is the reason why I love #cut50, a campaign founded by Van Jones to reform the criminal justice system through humanization, legislation and innovation. Their aim is to reduce the prison population while making our communities safer. Their campaigns are led by people who have been directly impacted by the justice system and want to create change, just like me. I invite you to visit their website, share it with your friends and sign the petition in your support or our efforts.
Birth is meant to be beautiful event, the addition of a new soul into our world. However, for many women, it’s a horrifying experience. Take action now to put an end to the silent suffering.
Until next time tribe!