“Day of Empathy” panel on pregnant people in prison. Clockwise: Natalie Hollbrook, Siwatu-Salama Ra, Erika Geiss and Brian Merlos | Screenshot
When Siwatu-Salama Ra thinks of the future, she thinks of hope.
She thinks of sweeping, systemic change.
Ra, a racial justice and environmental activist from Detroit, thinks of no one having to go through what she did: being sentenced to two years in prison when she was six months pregnant and delivering a baby in an Ann Arbor hospital room filled with four armed guards and no family.
“What would it have looked like to have more than 24 hours with my brand new baby?” Ra asked at a Tuesday panel discussion organized by Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based criminal justice reform organization. “What would it have been like to not have rude and disgusting officers in my delivery room who clutched their guns every time a door opened, who ate in front of me for hours when I couldn’t eat a thing? If we centered safety and compassion in ways that we haven’t yet, this could change a great deal for people.”
Ra joined state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor); Natalie Holbrook, the director of the American Friends Service Committee-Michigan Criminal Justice Program; and Geiss’ legislative director, Brian Merlos, for a panel discussion focused on the need to significantly change life for pregnant people in prison.
The panel discussion was one of a series of events that Safe & Just Michigan offered Tuesday as part of a national “Day of Empathy,” an annual event designed to push for a better criminal justice system organized nationally by Dream Corps JUSTICE.
A wide-ranging look at a criminal justice system in which a growing number of pregnant individuals are being sentenced to serve time in prison, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion covered vast ground, from calls to abolish the prison system altogether to the need for more immediate reforms, such as banning shackling pregnant people in prison and allowing individuals who have given birth to send their breast milk to the infants.
“Siwatu lived through trauma, and she wasn’t the first one and unfortunately wasn’t the last one to go through that,” Merlos said. “More and more pregnant people are being sentenced to prison during their pregnancy. …The inhumanities folks have endured include shackling upon transport, shackling directly after giving birth, babies being directly removed from their mamas right after being born. It’s inhumane that folks are being forced to live like this. There’s a lack of supportive care [in prison], both prenatal and postnatal.”
Currently, there is one all-women’s prison in Michigan, the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti. About 1,550 women are currently housed there, Holbrook said. The University of Michigan noted the facility only has capacity for 1,100 people.
Last year, Geiss introduced two bills that, if they had been voted on, would have overhauled the way pregnant people are treated in prison. The legislation, Senate Bills 830 and 831, were not voted on because lawmakers were focusing on addressing COVID-19, Merlos said. Both he and Geiss emphasized the state senator would reintroduce the legislation this year and expect lawmakers to vote on them this time around.
Senate Bill 830 would have prevented the shackling of a pregnant person, allowed the individual who has just given birth to breastfeed their child (something Ra asked for but was denied) or send their breastmilk to the child, prohibited corrections officers from being in the hospital room during labor and delivery, permitted birth parents to remain with their newborns for at least 72 hours, and allowed one loved one to be present during birth. Senate Bill 831 would have created an advisory board to oversee the conditions of all women at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility.
A Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesperson told the Advance last year that many of the provisions in SB 830 were already policies, such as not shackling individuals in labor and allowing a family member in the delivery room.
These bills, Geiss emphasized, are just the beginning of a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system.
“There’s so much work we need to do,” Geiss said. “There are probably a number of judges who would prefer not to incarcerate pregnant people but, because of the way sentencing guidelines are, end up having their hands tied…There need to be other methods [to address criminal justice]. We need to burn it all down and start over.”
Ra and Holbrook also emphasized this, saying criminal justice reform ultimately must be focused on creating a system that does not send people to prison.
Ra said not being sent to prison, or being sent after she had given birth, would have changed her entire life.
“More than 100 letters were sent to the judge asking them to grant me the ability to not go straight into me serving this two-year sentence,” Ra said. “Instead, give me the chance to give birth at home, with my family, with people who love me. And then, maybe I could self report after I’d given birth and given my baby enough time to bond with me. Even that isn’t ideal, but it would have been better than what happened.”
Ultimately, Ra said, there need to be large-scale questions asked by everyone from legislators and judges to community activists and voters that center empathy and sweeping change in criminal justice.
“We need to fight against the narrative of why people need to be in prison and strategize on how to bring them home from prison,” Ra said. “What are the laws that send people to prison in the first place? What are mandatory sentences doing to our community? How are people being railroaded into the [criminal justice] system? What do we need to change right now, through laws and policies and building relationships on a grassroots level, to reimagine what safety is?”
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