Cheri Branham spoke about her experience during the Wednesday press conference. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
Cheri Branham, a doula, said her birthing experience while incarcerated was terrifying and confusing.
In 2014, Branham said she was handcuffed with chains placed around her stomach and taken to a hospital at 5 a.m. to be induced. There was no birthing plan. During her 12-hour labor, she said she was unable to contact her family, go on walks or watch TV, and that she didn’t feel she could speak out for herself, especially as she was surrounded by correctional officers.
“I was told what was going to happen but not in a way I could comprehend,” Branham said at a Wednesday press conference. “I couldn’t wait to hold my daughter, but I was so afraid to leave her before she even arrived. I remember the nurses taking her away frequently, but I was afraid to speak out for what I needed, which was her. When I did speak up the correctional officers would quickly shut me down.”
When Branham left the hospital — and her newborn — less than 48 hours after giving birth, she said she wasn’t told about her baby’s whereabouts for an entire week.
A new bill, announced by Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) on Wednesday, International Women’s Day, seeks to protect women from experiences like Branham’s and better support women who give birth while incarcerated.
“There are observances happening all over the world to commemorate International Women’s Day,” Taylor said. “That also includes women who are incarcerated. They, too, are women who deserve value and respect. Today, we must remind others that respect extends to women who have made mistakes.”
The “Dignity for Incarcerated Women and Girls” bill would ban the practice of shackling incarcerated women while giving birth, create a doula program and implement other policies aimed at supporting pregnant people before, during and after giving birth.
An estimated 58,000 women are admitted into jails and prisons while pregnant every year, and thousands give birth or have other outcomes while still incarcerated, according to a brief by the Prison Policy Initiative.
The proposed bill — co-sponsored by Taylor and Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) — would ban the practice of restraining women from 6 months gestation until 6 weeks postpartum.
Peggy West-Schroder, executive director of FREE, a nonprofit created by justice system-impacted women, said the legislation would ensure there won’t be a resurgence of the practice.
“Our state Department of Corrections under most circumstances does not shackle pregnant women,” West-Schroder said. “However, unless we make it state law, we can’t be assured that it won’t happen if we get a new DOC secretary or a new superintendent over prison. We need to make sure that this is not happening in the state of Wisconsin.”
The lawmakers said the bill would catch Wisconsin up with other parts of the country. At least 37 states have laws limiting the practice including Minnesota, Illinois and Tennessee, and a 2018 federal law bars the use of restraints on pregnant people in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service.
This is not the first time state lawmakers have tried to ban the practice. Lawmakers introduced legislation banning the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women in 2017, following reports that the practice was being used in Milwaukee County jails. Prior lawsuits found more than 45 pregnant women had endured shackling since 2011. The bill, though it had some bipartisan support, ultimately failed.
Subeck said the bill would also ensure access to services like testing for sexually transmitted disease, pre- and postpartum care, information related to pregnancy and labor and access to health services including vital treatment services for new moms who are dealing with addiction or mental health issues.
“It is time that we start treating pregnant women and parenting women in our prison and justice system like people and like moms,” Subeck said. “They’re more than their crime. They’re more than just a prisoner. They are people. They are moms. They are members of our community.”
The bill would also create the Wisconsin Doula Prison Project. Modeled after a similar program in Minnesota, it would provide doula services to incarcerated women before, during and after giving birth.
Jillian Stacey, a Madison-based doula and mother of two, said doulas could help with collaboration and communication between patients and the medical teams, while ensuring that women are being treated as “someone worthy of being cared for.”
“I’m a social worker by trade. I’m a birth worker by passion. Part of our job is to advocate, part of our job is to center that humanity,” Stacey said. “We have the background to be like, ‘Hey, giving birth on our backs, it’s not the ideal position. She needs to be able to walk around.’”
Stacey said this is particularly important for incarcerated women because the justice system isn’t designed to take care of emergency situations or pregnant people. She said she saw this first hand with the experience of her sister, who received a positive pregnancy test during intake.
She said her sister was placed in the pregnancy ward at the local jail, but she had a tubal pregnancy, and one day she passed out and almost bled to death.
“She was in the medical unit for weeks, no contact with anybody,” Stacey said. “We did not know what was happening to her. We did not know what was going on. We didn’t find out until after she had returned to the pregnant tier, not pregnant anymore, and thankfully in one piece and alive. It’s terrifying to think of losing a sibling.”
She said it’s essential to advocate for mothers, especially those who are not visible.
Taylor said the sooner the legislation moves forward the better, and that there is already some bipartisan support.
“We have already begun our discussions on both sides of the aisle, and I am happy to report that I do have Republican colleagues, as well as Democratic colleagues, who are supportive of this legislation,” Taylor said. “Our hope is that we will get a hearing in both houses, and I hope that we will get it to the governor’s desk.”
Subeck added that previous Republican support on the bill shows that it could succeed and that it need not be a partisan issue.
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