Background and Purpose: Beverly (not her real name) was devastated when she was told by prison officials that they potentially threw her unborn baby in the trash after she had a very painful, and scary, miscarriage on the fall of her prison cell. She was left alone to hemorrhage for hours before being taking to the hospital. Beverly’s story is not unique. Incarcerated pregnant women are routinely treated as an afterthought. Prisons do not meet the most minimum basic healthcare standards that have been set but various public health groups. The very nature of prison, in and, of itself, strips people from all autonomy, freedom, and agency over their bodies. Thus, prison practices, policies, and protocols have been found to be particularly triggering for people who have a history of trauma and victimization. One of the major features and characteristics of incarcerated women, is a history of trauma, sexual violence, and abuse.
Methods: This study recruited key informants (formerly incarcerated pregnant Black women) and key stakeholders (doulas, social workers, advocates, health care providers, and activists). A total of 21 interviews were conducted (N=10 key informants and N=11 key stakeholders). Key informants and key stakeholders were recruited through purposive snowball sampling. Semi-structured interviews were used with key informants to understand how they narrate their pregnancy and birthing experiences through a reproductive justice lens. Interviews were audio-recorded and ranged between 60-90 minutes. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically using NVivo qualitative software, guided by the principles of thematic content analysis.
Results: Qualitative interviews revealed four primary themes: (1) Women shared stories of fear, anxiety, pain, and trauma from prison policies that forced them to birth in chains, alone, and without a support person who they trusted. 2) Women discussed being actively denied services when requested that sometimes lead to miscarriage, difficult pregnancies, and birth experiences. (3) Being incarcerated sometimes forced women to carry a pregnancy to full-term when that was not their choice. (4) Prison policies disrupt critical bonding between mother and infant and can cause deep emotional pain and trauma that can last for decades.
Conclusions and Implications: Understanding issues of mass incarceration through a RJ lens and Black Feminist Thought that centers the experiences of Black women can help us to move beyond mere reform to transformation. Nearly all formerly incarcerated pregnant women who participated in this study uniformly shared that their incarceration added to their unique health challenges and other stressors. They shared experiencing barriers to receiving adequate services that made their pregnancies extremely stressful. This is particularly concerning given that incarcerated women already have a history of poor health due to a myriad of structural factors which overwhelmingly and disproportionately impacts Black women. Ensuring that the reproductive rights are protected for some of our most vulnerable members of society requires that we examine mass incarceration at the intersections of race, gender, and reproduction.