Birth Behind Bars

New birth services offered at the Burnside prison.



Jean Catherine Steinberg says her day job is profound and humbling. She is a doula, a non-medical birth worker, both 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,” says Steinberg. “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 here in Halifax. Now, after two years of preparation, the Centre has begun 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 per cent 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 share this hope for the inmates.

Says Collett, “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.”

Similar programs already exist elsewhere, including one called Isis Rising in Minnesota. Though too early to be conclusive, it has 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 are excited to learn.

Both parties are acutely aware of the inmates’ potential. They take it for granted, and constantly anticipate the inmates lives’ beyond their present incarceration- something many community members don’t often consider.

“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 the incident ignited. After her many years volunteering in the prison system, Steinberg’s best advice to readers is to take the time to learn.

“I hope that people reading this article don’t just think that watching Orange is the New Black is getting educated on prisons,” says Steinberg. “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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