Being pregnant is one of the most memorable times of a woman's life. From finding out you're expecting to learning the sex of the baby, feeling kicks for the first time and deciding on names, there are so many moments during those 9 months that feel so life-changing, because, well, they are.
Regardless of where a mom lives or her financial stability, the experience of being pregnant is a fascinating, and yes, complicated time—especially for women who are in prison.
One in 25 women in state prisons and 1 in 33 in federal prisons are pregnant when admitted to prison, according to the Sentencing Project. And once they have their babies? There are very few institutions that offer nursing programs, and not all women maintain custody of their children after birth, even ones who were charged with nonviolent crimes.
Starting in 2003, photographer Cheryl Hanna-Truscott has been spending time with—and taking captivating images of—inmates who are mothers at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.
She has a lot to say about how mothers are treated while incarcerated and she took time to discuss her series, titled "Protected Custody" and featured here.
Cheryl Hanna-Truscott: The WA State Corrections Center for Women is only a ten-minute drive from where I live. I first heard mention of a prison nursery program through our community grapevine in the mid-90s. As a nurse-midwife, I was really excited to hear about such an innovative concept as keeping newborns with their incarcerated mothers.
I was invited to the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1999—and then as a photographer, started volunteering at the annual winter holiday mother/child event taking portraits of inmates with their visiting families. I was very moved by the emotions radiating from the families during their holiday party and wondered if I could ever possibly gain entry to do a serious, long-term environmental portrait documentary in the prison nursery.
I thought that not only could I learn a lot from the mothers going through pregnancy and childbirth while incarcerated, but that I would be able to educate others about the worth of investing in this type of corrections program. I am glad that my project has reached beyond my community to a larger audience—but equally glad that I am able to give these mothers photographs of them with their babies under these difficult circumstances.
CHT: I love taking environmental portraits. And even in the prison institution, I am always intrigued by how each mother creates her 'nest.' A mother/baby pair shares a small private room furnished with a metal bed, a bassinet or crib, a rocking chair, a simple table and chair, a metal storage locker, a towel rack, and a bulletin board. Rooms are painted in pastels and each has a window facing outside.
The mothers make simple baby toys and other decorations during Early Head Start parenting classes. Other baby/toddler necessities, including toys, books, and clothes, are generally donated. The items each mother chooses to display on her bulletin board and otherwise personalize her space are both visually interesting and reveal something about her personality.
CHT: I have lots of favorite moments. The babies and toddlers are well-loved and cared for so being around them is fun. (My own children are adults now!) Children who feel safe are beautiful.
Observing the mothers trying hard to be competent caregivers is rewarding. And often, deep conversations occur as the inmates struggle with the issues that led them to incarceration. With almost every encounter, I hear expressions of gratitude that she and her child are in a place together allowing mother/child attachment, access to support from Early Head Start educators, and hope that they will be able to live a decent life when released.
CHT: I want people to understand that the issues of mass incarcerations rates in our country need creative solutions on many, many levels. The numbers of women serving prison sentences has increased at an alarming rate. Women are generally the primary caretakers of children and families and women get pregnant. Pregnant inmates have specific needs based on the recognition that two people are vitally affected.
While there is a need for public safety and individual accountability for criminal behavior, there also needs to be appropriate and thoughtful solutions. Analysts have pointed out that prison systems have largely been modeled on male populations.
For many non-violent offenders, which includes the women allowed to participate in the prison nursery program, alternatives may include community-based confinement with access to substance abuse programs, educational opportunities, jobs skills acquisitions programs, and therapeutic parenting support—so that on release, a woman has hope of being able to connect with a community, make better decisions, and be a "good enough" mom.
At this time, criminal justice scholars speak of the "revolving door" of recidivism and "intergenerational criminal behavior."
We can do better than that. We need to do better than that. Investing in therapeutic programs, trauma-based interventions, and early parenting education are a few preventative measures against the financial, social, and emotional costs of wide-scale incarceration.