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New program designed to help pregnant people in Pennsylvania state prison

Doulas are trained to provide people with physical, emotional and educational support during pregnancy and child birth.

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA
The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

 Emma Lee / WHYY

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

Incarcerated women are more likely to experience illness and disease than those on the outside. And pregnant inmates are particularly vulnerable, often with less access to prenatal care. Pennsylvania officials are hoping to combat the issue with a new program that connects pregnant inmates at SCI Muncy with doula services.

Doulas are trained to provide people with physical, emotional and educational support during pregnancy and child birth. They have been linked to better birth outcomes by lowering the likelihood of birth complications and helping to treat postpartum depression.

Doula services are particularly beneficial to vulnerable populations like first-time parents or those with lower income or language barriers. Doulas can advocate on behalf of the mother to better communicate her needs during and after birth with doctors.

Seven women at SCI Muncy are currently enrolled in the program, and Williamsport-based Genesis Birth Services is providing doula services. Gerria Coffee, the founder of Genesis Birth Services, said she’s already helping the women make birthing and postpartum plans.

“To have a program where someone is there for them when they are giving birth, it’s immeasurable,” Coffee said. She’s held women’s hands during birth, cut umbilical cords and provided encouragement during labor. “All of those are priceless experiences and experiences that anyone who is giving birth deserves.”

By launching the program inside the prison, the state’s Department of Corrections hopes to reduce the trauma for families brought on by separation and incarceration, according to acting Secretary George Little.

“Doulas bring a unique and valuable skill set and experience that make them a welcome addition to the health care team at SCI Muncy.”

Jacqueline Larma / The Associated Press

FILE PHOTO: People walk on a tour of the West section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville.

That skill set includes maintaining communication between women and their families in the community. The state Department of Human Services will provide assistance paying for child care, home visiting and other financial assistance through the program.

“Offering doula services to women who are incarcerated will give them the advocate they deserve to help them through their pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum,” said Meg Snead, acting Human Services secretary. “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.”

The pilot program received financial support from the Tuttleman Foundation.

“When an incarcerated mother gives birth, most of the time, they are alone, scared, and without any support or family by their side,” said Max Tuttleman of the Tuttleman Foundation. “Doulas offer that crucial support to families and individuals. Birth is a highly traumatic, emotionally charged time in itself and having an expert there to advise, support, and hold one’s hand is immeasurably helpful.”

Snead said while the program is in its infancy, she hopes to expand the resource to Pennsylvania’s other all-female facility, SCI Cambridge Springs. But there is no timeline for that expansion.

State Rep. Morgan Cephas (D-Philadelphia) applauded the program Monday and called on state legislators to fund the services permanently. Doula services are not currently covered by Pennsylvania’s Medical Assistance program, which serves low-income people.

“We now have an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum to pass legislation in the House or Senate to include Medicaid coverage for doulas for all birthing people,” she said.

Cephas is also the co-sponsor of a bill that would ban shackling, solitary confinement and full body searches for pregnant people. It would also provide visitation time for single mothers and feminine hygiene products at no cost to the incarcerated. The bill remains in committee.

Compassion and prioritizing the humanity of incarcerated women is at the forefront of the doula program, according to Coffee.

“What this program does is it separates the circumstance and it really focuses on the person and gives that holistic support,” Coffee said. “That’s going to benefit birth outcomes, it’s going to benefit mental health outcomes … and it’s going to benefit the child.”

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