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The Prison System Welcomes My Newborn Niece to This World

(Photo: Narith5 / Flickr)

My niece – the first baby of my family’s newest generation – was born last Wednesday morning at 10:52 AM. She is a superhero, although she probably doesn’t realize it yet. Her path into this world was a rough, rough haul.

Here’s how it went: At 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, my sister was called out of bed in the state prison where she’s incarcerated with the news that she’d be heading to the hospital. Her water hadn’t broken, and she hadn’t started contractions. But this was the time slot in which she was scheduled to give birth. The labor would be induced.

During and after the birth, my sister was allowed no family or friends at her bedside, or even in the hospital. She endured labor alone, except for medical personnel and two prison guards, who rotated shifts, watching her at all times.

After 26 hours, my niece finally pushed her way out – 7 pounds, 5 ounces, and crying.

Following the birth, a guard immediately shackled my sister’s ankles to the bedpost. “It made it hard to pick up the baby from the basket next to the bed,” she told us afterward. “I was afraid I was going to drop her.”

Our state has anti-shackling laws in place, preventing women from being chained to their hospital beds during labor. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be chained afterward.

The ritual my sister underwent Tuesday and Wednesday wasn’t an unusual occurrence. In prison, 4 percent to 7 percent of women are pregnant on arrival.

Virtually no pregnant people in prison are so-called “flight risks.” In The Root, advocate Malika Saada Saar writes, “Anyone who has given birth, indeed, any person who has witnessed the birthing process, knows that the prospect of a woman in childbirth trying to run away or tackle a corrections officer is almost comical.” Yet because during the wildly tumultuous hours of labor and birth, these women are outside of prison walls, they’re tightly restricted, permitted virtually no contact with their loved ones.

Several hours after giving birth, my sister was allowed a phone call. She dialed my mother, who called me up and clicked on speaker mode. My sister held the phone up close to the baby’s shrieking mouth. Her voice reverberating with joy and pain, my sister asked, “Do you hear her screaming? Isn’t she amazing?”

She was. She is.

My sister and her baby were granted 24 hours together. And then it was over: She was cuffed and shuttled away, back to prison, where she’ll serve two and a half more months.

The baby remained behind in the hospital nursery, to be delivered eventually to her father for the remaining months of my sister’s sentence. Severed, they’ll miss the early bonding that much of the world’s population agrees is a crucial part of child development. This population includes the Bureau of Prisons and many states’ departments of corrections, which, in public statements, stress the importance of family ties.

With the exception of a few prison nursery programs (which are controversial, because they involve locking up newborn babies), incarcerated mothers must say goodbye to their infants upon birth.

Although my sister’s time apart from her baby will no doubt be miserable – torturous, one could reasonably argue – it will bear more hope than most: Many pregnant prisoners have more than three months left to serve after their babies’ births. The average woman prisoner’s sentence is 12 months. And quite a few prisoners are looking ahead to years apart from their children, as they’re led out of the hospital in handcuffs, leaving their babies behind.

Four days after my niece’s birth, my family and I made the three-hour drive down to the hospital to meet her. She was the smallest, softest person I’d ever met, sporting a full head of dark brown hair and an uncannily wise look in her large, unblinking eyes. As I held her (badly – the nurse on duty persistently adjusted her in my arms), she wriggled impatiently, her mouth wide open – she wanted to nurse. She was out of luck on that front.

Taped to the wall of her miniscule crib was a three-page note filled with my sister’s neat, decorative handwriting: a list of instructions. She likes the top of her mouth tickled with the tip of the pacifier or your finger. It helps her feed. She loves to be held. She loves when you hold her hand. And on, and on. And then: I love you so so much, baby. I promise I’ll be home soon.

As I stared down at the 19-inch person sprawled in my awkward arms, my sister’s face stared back. And as she drifted off to sleep, I thought, I know what she’s dreaming inside that delicate, perfect head. It was no mystery. She wanted her mom.

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