The Michigan Prison Doula Initiative hosted a panel made up of seven formerly incarcerated people, health care professionals and MPDI staff Monday night to discuss insights on the intersections of reproductive justice and mass incarceration.
According to Public Health junior Sitara Murali, the director for Community Outreach and Activism of the University of Michigan’s Prison Birth Project, as well as one of the organizers of the event, the purpose of the event was to bring the experiences of those exposed to the prison system to light and increase communication about the system as a whole.
“Tonight’s event was basically a way for our student org, the Prison Birth Project, to highlight the experiences of people that have firsthand been involved in the prison systems,” Murali said. “Either they were incarcerated, or they worked there, or they work with populations –– women specifically –– that were incarcerated, and we just thought it was a really important conversation to bring to campus and something that a lot of people don’t have a lot of understanding about.”
The goal of MPDI is to “provide comprehensive childbirth education and professional doula services to women in Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.” It collaborates with various organizations and encourages volunteer participation.
Many of the panelists shared intimate experiences about their times in prison in which they felt personally impacted by injustices within the system. MPDI Executive Director Jacqueline Williams described the impact she hoped the panelists had on the attendees.
“I hope what the panelists said today changes their perceptions of what people actually have to go through in prison,” Williams said. “There’s this conception that, ‘Oh, they get fed three meals a day and all of their needs are attended to.’ And as you heard, it can sometimes take an enormous amount of agency and self-advocacy to get even the most baseline accommodations.”
In women’s prisons in the U.S., 85 percent of inmates are mothers and 25 percent were pregnant on arrest or gave birth within the last year. Based off of these statistics, Williams spoke about the most effective manner in which the U.S. should approach the issues within the prison system.
“When we think about health care and reproductive justice, it’s just unsustainable to think that we can provide adequate health care and progressive reproductive justice when we have so many people in prison and so many of those people are in prison for non-violent drug offenses,” Williams said. “There are alternatives to this that countries participate in like… more actual safety nets before people actually end up in prison. Those would be the most effective investments that we could make.”
Based on her own experiences incarcerated, panelist Asia Johnson highlighted the large positive impact students within the audience could make by volunteering at the prison.
“The students at U-M have been so instrumental in me becoming the woman that I am today,” Johnson said. “Even though I went to prison, I spent nine years of my life away, I feel like this is the best me that I’ve been in my whole life, and it’s only because people gave me their time.”
LSA senior Michele Laarman emphasized the importance of University students being aware of both reproductive injustice and mass incarceration.
“Incarceration is a huge part of this nation,” Laarman said. “Not to know about stuff that’s going on all over the country and on such a massive scale, that’s not okay after you come out of a four-year degree program –– especially if you’re in social sciences or humanities, but it’s important for anyone.”
Update: A previous version of this article misstated the school affiliation of one of the students quoted.