Birth behind bars | Health | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Birth behind bars

Inmates at the Burnside correctional facility can now access doula services thanks to some hardworking volunteers.

Jean Catherine Steinberg says her day job is profound and humbling. She is a doula, a non-medical birth worker, privately and as a volunteer with the Chebucto Family Centre.

Two years ago, she heard a gruesome story. Julie Bilotta, pregnant and in custody at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, gave birth alone in solitary confinement. The story made international headlines, but to Steinberg and her fellow volunteers, it was more than just a headline. It was a spark.

"Some of us were obviously quite disgusted by hearing this story," she says. "Some other birth workers got in touch with me because I've been doing other prison work for many years."

So they started planning how to reach expecting inmates in Halifax. After two years of preparation, the Centre is offering doula services at the Central Nova Correctional Facility, commonly known as the Burnside Facility.

In the last 12 years, seven inmates at Burnside have given birth, says Eileen Collett, deputy superintendent of Administration and Programs at Central Nova. Right now, one pregnant woman is in custody. Though Canadian statistics are unavailable, the US Bureau of Justice 2004 survey data found that four percent of female inmates in state prisons were pregnant upon admission.

The purpose of the new program at Burnside is to augment the care already provided. The doulas hope to reach these women, support them during pregnancy, birth and after birth, and also pre-connect them to a supportive community before being released.

For the volunteers at the Chebucto Family Centre, it's a natural extension of what they do.

"Birth and parenting can literally change the way [a woman] looks at her entire life," says Jessie Harrold, the Volunteer Doula Program co-ordinator. "Maybe that's idealistic, but I see it. I see it in my work. That's the great hope that many of us birth workers have when we support women who are living in vulnerable situations."

The workers at Burnside say they share this hope for the inmates.

"When offenders are in custody, they are being released to the community, and when they go in to the community we want them to be healthy and able to live safely," says Collett.

Similar programs already exist, including one called Isis Rising in Minnesota. Though too early to be conclusive, the American program appears to have improved birth outcomes for incarcerated new mothers, indicated by factors like delivery method, gestational age and birth weight.

Burnside and Chebucto Family Services are excited for the possibilities of their fledgling program. The doulas have ideas for a wider range of services, and the professionals at Burnside seem excited to learn.

"Prisons are the intersection of so many issues in our world," says Steinberg. "It's really easy for a lot of people who don't have loved ones inside—moms, dads, siblings, cousins, partners—to pretend that prisons don't exist."

Julie Bilotta's case forced the issue into the Canadian consciousness. The Chebucto birth volunteers and the Burnside staff will continue the conversations that incident ignited because they are focused on the inmates' futures. That's important, because what Steinberg has learned from her years volunteering is that most of the public doesn't take the time to consider the potential for these women's lives beyond their present incarceration.

"I hope that people reading this article don't just think that watching Orange is the New Black is getting educated on prisons," she says. "Learn about what prisons are here in Nova Scotia. For those who don't feel like they have a connection to prisons, I would ask them to question that. We are all very deeply connected."

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