Pregnant people in prison have been shackled while giving birth. Whitmer plans to change that.

New DOC policy directive limits restraints, allows breastfeeding during visitations

By: - October 20, 2021 8:47 am

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When Siwatu-Salama Ra received the news yesterday that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a policy directive meant to overhaul the way pregnant people in prison are treated, she was in the hospital watching her 3-year-old son struggle to breathe.

“He’s being so strong in the hospital now, and I remember him as a baby who, at 24 hours old, also had to be strong when he was separated from his mother,” said Ra.

Siwatu-Salama Ra and her three-year-old son, Zakai, who was born while Ra was incarcerated in Michigan | Courtesy photo

A prominent racial justice and environmental activist from Detroit, Ra was sentenced when she was six month pregnant for waving an unloaded gun at a woman she said was threatening her family. She gave birth to her son, Zakai, while serving time at Michigan’s one all-women’s prison, the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.

Being pregnant and giving birth while in prison was a traumatic nightmare from which she is still healing, she said. When Ra went into labor, prison officials performed a strip search before she was allowed to leave for St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor. At the hospital, her legs were shackled during contractions; she was chained to a bed while a doctor examined her cervix.

Finally, after the doctor repeatedly asked prison guards to remove the shackles, they were. But four armed guards remained in the room while she gave birth, and no family or friends were allowed to be there with Ra. For the rest of the time she was in prison, she was not allowed to breastfeed her infant son when family members brought him to visit his mother.

No one, Ra said, should ever have to go through that. And, now, with the new policy directive from Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Heidi Washington, Ra, other prison reform advocates and elected officials are hoping no one ever will.

Announced by Whitmer on Tuesday, the policy directive will go into effect Nov. 22. It requires that pregnant individuals who are incarcerated not be restrained during labor and only be restrained at other points during their pregnancy under extreme circumstances, such as if another inmate is in danger; allows a “support person,” such as a family member or friend, to be at the hospital when the parent in prison gives birth; and provides opportunities for those in prison to develop a birth plan with health care staff and work with a doula. 

The directive will also allow people in prison to breastfeed their babies during visitations. Under the new policy, DOC staff will be trained in working with people who are pregnant and postpartum. Corrections officials said a number of the directive’s initiatives were already department policies, such as not shackling individuals in labor, but advocates said those policies aren’t always followed.

“This means that mothers and pregnant people in Huron Valley will be able to hold onto some type of dignity throughout their birthing experience,” Ra said of the directive. “There’s nothing normal about giving birth in prison, but this allows mothers and pregnant folks to be with their loved ones. So many of us have been shackled during transport or labor or delivery; so many of us had vaginal exams with shackles on our legs. It took the humanity out of a human experience, a mothering experience.”  

When we talk about pregnant moms, prenatal care, labor and delivery experiences, the forgotten folks tend to be the folks who are incarcerated and their children.

– State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor)

Whitmer said that is exactly what she hopes will change with this directive and lauded the work by MDOC, state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) and other advocates to make these reforms a reality.

Every pregnant Michigander deserves access to a safe birth, critical maternal healthcare, and essential postpartum supports,” Whitmer said in a Tuesday press release. “I am proud that MDOC, Sen. Geiss, key stakeholders, and my office worked together to formalize these critical policies for treatment of pregnant and postpartum Michiganders who are incarcerated. Our actions today will improve health outcomes for moms and babies and make our corrections system more just.” 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the keynote address at the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference, Sept. 22, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

As the lead organizer of the Freedom Team, an organization advocating for prison reform and human rights, Ra has for years spearheaded efforts alongside other grassroots activists, community organizers and lawmakers to achieve this kind of reform. 

“We’ve been fighting for this for the past three years,” Ra said of a large collective of people and organizations who have been pushing for the changes to the state’s criminal justice system, including the Freedom Team, Geiss, Safe and Just Michigan; the American Friends Service Committee-Michigan Criminal Justice Program; and Mothering Justice, among many others.

“It was not easy; it seemed like a long, drawn-out fight between us and MDOC to come to a  point of negotiation, reconciliation and agreement,” Ra said. “[The directive] is not our dream, not everything we want, but I am hopeful this is a great leap towards our dream.”

Geiss agreed that the directive is a good first step but emphasized that additional criminal justice reforms are needed. 

Last legislative session, the senator introduced legislation that would have achieved what the directive sets out to do, as well as other reforms, but lawmakers did not pass it, in large part because of timing difficulties due to COVID. Geiss in May reintroduced part of that legislation, Senate Bill 487, which would create an advisory board to oversee the conditions of the people imprisoned at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

“When we talk about pregnant moms, prenatal care, labor and delivery experiences, the forgotten folks tend to be the folks who are incarcerated and their children,” Geiss said. “Because of the lack of attention to their care, their children end up becoming victims of the system and end up getting punished for something they didn’t do, that their birthing parent is in for. I think this policy directive helps center the care around not just the birthing person but also the infant, and hopefully that will lead to better outcomes for them.”

Sen. Erika Geiss | Anna Liz Nichols

Natalie Holbrook, the director of the American Friends Service Committee-Michigan Criminal Justice Program, also praised the directive but, like Ra and Geiss, said additional action needs to take place around prison reform. Ultimately, Holbrook hopes, pregnant individuals would not be incarcerated at all, something Ra also emphasized.

“I’m hopeful people will start to look at imprisonment as the problem,” Holbrook said. “The conditions are harsh, and they’re not meant for anyone and especially someone who is pregnant.”

Holbrook, who has been working with Ra, Geiss and others on the criminal justice reform, said she would like to see parents not only being able to breastfeed babies during visitations but be able to send their milk to the children while they are away from them.

She also cited hopes that DOC staff will fully adhere to the directive.

“You can have all the policy directives in the world, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to follow the policy directive,” Holbrook said. 

To address this, Holbrook said the oversight committee that Geiss’ legislation would create is crucial because it would allow issues in the women’s prison to be more quickly resolved. Currently, people in prison can file a grievance over something like a policy directive being broken, but that can take months to be resolved, Holbrook explained.

So many of us have been shackled during transport or labor or delivery; so many of us had vaginal exams with shackles on our legs. It took the humanity out of a human experience, a mothering experience.

– Siwatu-Salama Ra, a Detroit activist who gave birth while incarcerated

“I’m really thankful the governor took a step in the right direction and is behind this policy directive,” Holbrook continued. “But there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Washington, the DOC director, said in Tuesday’s press release that the Huron Valley Correctional Facility staff takes “great pride in the services they provide to ensure pregnant and postpartum prisoners have their physical and mental health needs met during this time.

These policy enhancements will further that commitment and continue to make Michigan a national leader in this and so many other corrections-related areas,” Washington continued.


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.