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Photo: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
Photo: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

New partnership will see doula services brought to women in one PA prison

Doula services have been linked with more positive birth outcomes, especially for socially disadvantaged women.

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A public-private partnership is bringing new pregnancy care services to prisoners at Lycoming County’s SCI Muncy, a Pennsylvania prison that serves as the processing center for all women who enter state prisons. 

The funding will come from the nonprofit Tuttleman Foundation, and the company Genesis Birth Services will oversee the work with incarcerated parents. 

Gerria Coffee, founder of Genesis, told WHYY News that she is currently observing all the births at SCI Muncy herself and that her organization is providing doula training at the facility, with the eventual goal of having five doulas available for work in the prison. 

“The pilot [begins when] a person gives birth, and then we will follow the infant and the mother up to one year postpartum, because that is the time period when a person is deemed vulnerable by the WHO and the CDC,” Coffee said.

Coffee also said she wants to ensure that the program gives holistic support and separates the circumstance of prison during the birthing experience. 

More than half of the women in U.S. prisons and 80% of all women in jails are mothers.  

Acting Department of Human Services Secretary Meg Snead said she hopes the doula services will benefit parent’s beyond their time in prison. 

“It also helps to foster a continued connection with their children and families that will be beneficial as they reenter their communities and parent in person,” Snead said in a statement. 

A doula is a trained companion who serves as an emotional, mental, and physical support for pregnant women before, during, and after childbirth. They provide non-clinical support, like assisting with nursing, feeding, and perinatal depression and anxiety. 

Doula services have been linked with more positive birth outcomes, especially for socially disadvantaged women. 

The National Institutes of Health found that doula-assisted mothers were four times less likely to have a baby with a low birth weight, two times less likely to experience complications, and significantly more likely to initiate breastfeeding. 

“Going through this critical time while incarcerated separates a woman from her support network and normal care provides,” said First Lady Frances Wolf, who recently conducted a series of panel discussions with experts who work with incarcerated women. 

The initiative will be limited, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers are hoping to implement similar programs and funding into state law permanently before Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf leaves office next January. 

Philadelphia Rep. Morgan Cephas, who took part in Wolf’s panel discussion on maternal health outcomes in November, is one of the four legislators pushing for the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which was introduced in the State House in September. 

The lawmakers propose eight “best practices” for offering safe practice and enforcement in state-run facilities, including banning solitary confinement for pregnant women, and providing trauma-informed care for correctional officers working with them. 

Other focuses include allowing for adequate visitation for incarcerated parents who are the primary caregivers of their minor children, whether male or female. The bill would also require prisons to provide free feminine hygiene products, and ban full body searches of female prisoners by male guards. 

“When an incarcerated woman gives birth, most of the time she's alone, scared and without any support from her family to be by her side and in our minds, no woman or and no one should ever have to feel that way when trying to bring a life into this world, no matter what mistakes they may or may have not made," said Max Tuttleman, of the Tuttleman Foundation.

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