Ypsi-based program aims to restore dignity for women giving birth while incarcerated

Lindsey Vandenburg felt lucky that her good behavior at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility meant she didn't have to be chained to the bed while delivering her baby, but her delivery experience was still far from dignified.


After receiving an epidural, Vandenburg was supposed to nap quietly, but officers assigned to keep watch over her were talking on their cell phones, making hair appointments, and talking about what they wanted to eat.


"There were about four officers in the room, all looking between my legs and seeing what was going on, and I had no privacy," Vandenburg says. "One officer asked if she could cut the umbilical cord. I said, 'No, I'm going to let the doctor do that.' They treated me as if I was a medical experiment, not a human being."


Vandenburg has been telling her story to various decision-makers around Michigan in an attempt to draw attention to a new nonprofit headquartered in Ypsilanti, the Michigan Prison Doula Initiative (MPDI). The project aims to provide support to incarcerated pregnant women so they don't have to experience the isolation and degradation Vandenburg did when giving birth to her daughter.


A mission to help a vulnerable population


MPDI is the brainchild of Jacqueline Williams, who combined her interests in supporting women in childbirth and social justice after spending the winter at Standing Rock Indian Reservation during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest of 2016-2017.


She ran a kitchen in a camp made up mostly of women and children, including a few pregnant women, and was devastated when one woman lost her baby.


"The work was at the intersection between government control of space and land translating into control of health care services, and the way women experience pregnancies," Williams says. "The government was doing things like blocking roads so ambulances wouldn't have access, and confiscating wood deliveries. Limiting services entering the camps directly translated to pregnant women not having food or not being warm enough."


After that experience, she trained to be a doula – a non-medical professional who provides emotional and physical support before, during, and after childbirth. Williams also took a criminal justice training through the American Friends Service Committee, which lists ending mass incarceration as one of its key issues.


Williams then put out feelers for like-minded individuals and connected with Emily Sluiter, who now serves as MPDI's co-founder and board president.


During the program's first year, Williams traveled to see similar programs around the country, although there aren't many. She says MPDI is one of only three functioning prison doula programs around the country, the others being in Minnesota and Alabama.

The first year also included writing grant proposals, recruiting doulas and community partners like St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, participating in fundraisers, and meeting with prison officials. MPDI worked out an agreement with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) to operate in Michigan's only women's prison, the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township.


"I feel really grateful working with a department of corrections that is willing to make progressive changes," Williams says. "Elsewhere around the country, there is not this kind of collaboration at all, but (MDOC) approved our project in full. It was a 45-page proposal with 800 footnotes and we covered every base, but I really think it's great the way they have been willing to work with us."


As of autumn 2018, MPDI finalized a memorandum of understanding with MDOC so the program could finally get started. No women have gone through the program yet, but doulas are in place and ready to begin work with a few women who have due dates in April.


The program doesn't have official office space yet either, Williams says. She and board members have been meeting in cafes and coffee shops around Ypsi to talk business. However, she says an agreement to share space with an Ypsi church is in the works.


A continuum of care


Arnetta Ford, one of the doulas working with MPDI, has unique qualifications to be a prison doula. She went through doula training in 1996 and delivered her first baby in 1997. She was also an MDOC employee for many years before retiring in 2017.


Although she's no longer an employee, she still volunteers in the women's prison teaching parenting classes, and she is one of the doulas on call for MPDI.


During birth, doulas help with breathing and pain management techniques, as well as advocating for the incarcerated mother who may have to make medical decisions during the process.


Ford says it's important that a continuum of care is built into the initiative. That means that the same doula is assigned to the pregnant woman through the entire process, from prenatal counseling to attending during the birth, as well as two postpartum visits.


"This initiative is important because women who have consistent support during their labor and delivery have better outcomes, physically and emotionally, and need fewer C-sections," Ford says.


Vandenburg says she was offered no special prenatal diet and no medication or counseling for postpartum depression. Grieving the separation from her daughter in the week after being in the hospital, she started a fight that ruined her perfect behavior record in prison, and she says she went into a downward spiral for three years after that.


"I think (the initiative) will make a huge difference for the woman's mental health," Ford says. "Their overall state of mind will be better, healthier, because they'll have consistent support during pregnancy, during the birth, and for a short period after."


Williams says she believes MPDI's model can and should be implemented around the country.


"The way we take care of people at their lowest point directly impacts how they return to the community and maintain the family bond," she says. "It's not just about punishment but about restoring justice and repairing communities. We have to start right here because babies born to incarcerated mothers are far more likely to end up incarcerated themselves."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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