Saturday, May 22, 1999

Prisons change rules for moms

First, dads present at birth; now, breastfeeding

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sean and Barbara Turner with 8-week-old Mackenzie, who is breastfeeding.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
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        COLUMBUS — When Mackenzie Elizabeth Turner was born March 28, the Ohio prison system started to become more baby-friendly — at the urging of her imprisoned mother and some powerful allies.

        Prison officials said her father, Sean Turner of Mariemont, couldn't witness Mackenzie's birth at Ohio State University Hospital because of security concerns. But he was granted permission after Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio intervened.

        Mackenzie's mother, Barbara Ann Turner, didn't stop there. She was determined to breast-feed Mackenzie from behind bars. At first prison officials said no, and took away her breast pump, which she would need to keep her milk supply flowing.

        “They called it a security risk,” said Mrs. Turner, who is serving a 21/2-year sentence at the Franklin Pre-Release Center for prescription drug offenses. Prison officials said that was true, but didn't specify what that risk might be.

        However, Mrs. Turner persuaded authorities to return the device, and cited a special provision allowing increased visitation under certain conditions.

        With relatives' help, five days a week the baby makes the 100-mile trip to the Columbus prison for breast-feeding.

Barbara Turner plays with Mackenzie.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
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        “It's turned out to be a beautiful thing — my child knows me,” Mrs. Turner said, smiling as Mackenzie suckled at her breast in the prison visiting room Thursday. “She needs this closeness, this bonding.”

        As a result of the Turners' case, Ohio prison officials are changing some things about the way they deal with pregnant prisoners and their newborns, and have even started investigating whether to establish a prison nursery.

        Their actions follow a national trend that promises to intensify as the number of women behind bars continues to climb.

        Before the late 1970s, fewer than 10,000 women were confined in state and federal prisons. By 1997, the number had exceeded 70,000, the U.S. Department of Justice reported.

        The birth rate among prisoners also has grown dramatically in some states, but in Ohio, officials say the number of births has remained at 100 or fewer births per year.

        They also said that, until Mrs. Turner's case, requests for witnesses at the births have been rare.

Shana Barker with her daughter, Tawney. Barker's sister was allowed to witness the birth.
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        On May 14, inmate Shana Barker had a baby by Caesarean section — and her sister, Carol Beans of Akron, was allowed to watch Tawney Ann Barker come into the world.

        “I was able to just be there and comfort her, hold her hand, make it not so scary. I just can't imagine going through it without somebody,” Mrs. Beans said. “At first we were told nobody could be with my sister, and

        that made me really sad. She's 24, it's her first child, and she didn't know what to expect.”

        Ms. Barker, who is serving time for drug offenses, said until she saw Mrs. Turner in the prison visiting room with her baby and heard about her case, she didn't know it was possible for an inmate to have a loved one attend the birthing process. When she did learn about it, she thought officials probably would only allow the baby's father — and that wasn't desirable for her because she has little relationship with the baby's father.

        “It was wonderful they let my sister be there,” Ms. Barker said. “It was just like a touch of home.”

        Patricia Andrews, warden of Franklin Pre-Release, Ohio's only facility for pregnant prisoners, says the Turners' case “has definitely opened the door” for other pregnant inmates who want witnesses at their babies' births.

        She says prison officials weren't being unkind or anti-family when they denied the Turners' original request.

        “Most inmates aren't concerned about having somebody present,” Warden Andrews said. Since Mackenzie's birth, Ms. Andrews learned that two other people had been permitted to watch while a prisoner gave birth, but says the prison has lacked a formal written policy on such a situation. A policy is now in the works, “and we're making it a priority,” Ms. Andrews said.

        Mary Q. Hawkes, a retired Rhode Island College professor of criminal justice, cites one big problem with prison policies: They tend to be designed with male inmates in mind.

        “I feel very strongly that there need to be special policies around many of women's health needs, but particularly around the maternity and childbirth,” Ms. Hawkes said.

        Often, one-size-fits-all directives are inappropriate when applied to women, she said. For instance, in some states, women in childbirth were shackled and handcuffed because prison policy required those measures for all inmates taken to hospitals, Ms. Hawkes said, calling the procedure “barbaric.”

        Ohio's pregnant inmates are not shackled or handcuffed during birth, but Ms. Hawkes wasn't sure about current procedures in other states.

        Ms. Hawkes, who has worked on behalf of incarcerated women and their children, said most U.S. women's prisons built around the turn of the century housed nurseries. But the nurseries began to be phased out in the 1950s, for financial, social and political reasons — and many had few or no programs to help women in these situations.

        As of 1997, only three states — Illinois, Nebraska and New York — had long-term prison nurseries, according to an American Correctional Association (ACA) report.

        But the tide has begun to turn, Ms. Hawkes said. The ACA has urged women's prisons to develop policies to help strengthen relationships between prison moms and their children.

        “We've finally gotten back to realizing that we've got to do more to keep that mother and child bonded,” she said. “Sure, there are costs, but they're the next generation — and we can't afford not to help.”

        Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and former ACA president, says Ohio prison officials are now looking at “intense concentrated parenting programs” for both male and female inmates who have children.

        Also, he confirmed that prison officials are researching whether a nursery can or should be established in Ohio, but said there is no proposal yet. “We're just doing some good background work on it at this point,” Mr. Wilkinson said Friday.

        As for the breast-feeding issue, Mr. Wilkinson surmised that the reason Mrs. Turner's breast pump was confiscated was because it is absent from the list of items inmates are permitted to possess. While there might be some unlisted items that would be harmless for prisoners to have, Mr. Wilkinson said, “obviously we can't list every (imaginable) item.”

        Besides, many prisoners probably wouldn't have the resources to even consider breast-feeding, Ms. Andrews said. They lack family members who have the time, means and money to bring a baby back and forth to the prison so many times.

        Even so, Mrs. Turner says she would like to see authorities amend policies that seem to create obstacles for women with babies.

        “It's almost like (prison officials) wonder, "Who does she think she is, asking for this special treatment?'” Mrs. Turner said. “I'm the mother of Mackenzie, and I'm trying to do the best job that I can even though I'm in here.”


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