Organization launches to provide support for pregnant incarcerated women

Organization launches to provide support for pregnant incarcerated women

A new non-profit that helps advocate for better conditions for women in corrections facilities who are pregnant or caring for young children officially launched Friday night in Halifax.

Martha Paynter, a board member of the new organization and a student nurse at Dalhousie University, said being pregnant while incarcerated is a "traumatic" experience.

"By and large these women have experienced childhoods, lifetimes of trauma. That's coupled with their body changing, being separated from their spouses, from their support systems," she said.

"There's a lot of illness, a lot of injury, and a lot of violence inside our correctional institutions, so you're putting a pregnant woman in these situations. And somehow, she endures."

Volunteers visit Burnside, Nova Institution

Women's Wellness Within grew out of an informal group of perinatal care support workers who started volunteering to serve women inside the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside in 2014.

The group offered things like health workshops to women inside. Paynter said educational resources are essential for pregnant women who don't have access to the internet or prenatal books while in jail.

A year later, the group began to serve clients in the Nova Institution for Women in Truro.

The group formalized as a non-profit in 2017. Paynter said that will allow the group to fundraise and to advocate for political change.

"There needs to be drastic improvement in prenatal education for women who are inside," she said.

The organization has had about 16 clients since 2014.

Advocacy for new mothers

Emma Halpern is the regional advocate with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and has seen how advocacy can play a big role in the health of women and their infants.

Halpern remembers one woman who was separated from her baby and returned to prison days after giving birth in a hospital.

"This was a baby that was very much at risk of not making it. At one point, the nurses were saying this baby had about a 20 per cent chance of survival," said Halpern.

The baby needed breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact. When her advocates spoke up, the woman was allowed to go back to her child to nurse and hold him. The baby pulled through and the family has been living together since the woman was released.