Alumni Programs

Making a Difference, One Woman at a Time:

Birth Attendants work with the women of Purdy Prison

By Gaia Thomas, '08

How do you provide personal freedom and emotional support in a prison? The Birth Attendants – a ground-breaking collective of doulas from Olympia, Washington – answer this question. Doula is a Greek word meaning “servant of woman.” They provide support and education throughout the entire birth process, complementing the services of health care providers.

Founded by Evergreen students in 2002, The Birth Attendants are now a fully functioning non-profit organization with a board of directors. They serve primarily the women of Purdy Prison and seek to educate the greater community about the “struggles and triumphs of all marginalized pregnant and parenting women.”

zimryah barnes photo

Zimryah Barnes ('07) joined The Birth Attendants while at Evergreen. The collective offered her a practical way to advocate for marginalized populations. Empowered by her own birthing experience, she wanted to make that opportunity available to others. “I try to put myself in other people’s shoes, and provide the kind of support I would want…which is non-judgmental, with no hidden agenda, which is self-less, for the sake of supporting our need to survive and to receive love and to be respected as human beings.”

I met with Barnes one night in November over a bowl of miso soup and mug of horchata- a sweet, cinnamony drink made from grains or nuts. Our discussion was sprinkled with interjections from her daughter. Barnes explained that horchata provides an alternative to corn syrup sweetened drinks for her daughter. This kind of conscious, artful approach to child-raising reflects the care and ingenuity Barnes puts into her work.

The Birth Attendants empower their clients through education. Learning about their own health, delivery and the postpartum process allows them to make more informed choices. They ask questions that expand their options for a healthy birth.

According to one study, having a doula present at a birth can decrease epidural use by 60%, Cesarean birth by 50%, and the length of labor by 25%.

(Klaus, Kennell & Klaus, Mothering the Mother)

As I listened to Barnes, the transformative power of a doula’s presence became clear in the story of an incarcerated woman whose first birth was a traumatic caesarean section. With her second pregnancy, she wanted to attempt a vaginal birth. Vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC) is not practiced at the hospital Purdy normally uses. Through the Birth Attendants’ advocacy, this mother found a hospital that practices VBACs and was able to labor there.

I began to see how individualized the process is – tailored to the needs of each woman and the pressures of her situation. Barnes explains, “I don’t think I could have ever really prepared myself… It touches everyone in our collective in a different way. And still each Friday I go in, it’s a different day. There’s something different that happens to me.”

During the actual delivery, intuition proves invaluable. The doula must negotiate options that meet the mother’s needs while remaining within the boundaries set by the attending corrections officer. Barnes explains, “Everyone makes their own choices. [There are] times when you’re supporting a mom and she’s making a choice that you wouldn’t make.... But it’s not about you. It’s about her.”

For a doula working under the prison administration, it is important to serve without allowing personal responses to certain institutional practices to jeopardize the group’s place within that system. For example, there is currently no law against shackling during labor in Washington State. Barnes is thankful she has not yet had to witness this occurrence.

We discussed the importance of validating the mother’s experience in the midst of her reality. “It’s really a powerful thing to have someone witness your experience,” says Barnes. “That can make a whole lot of difference. Even if later on you’re feeling really horrible about it. someone else was there, and can say: ‘Yes, that was real. Yes, your feelings and emotions about that are real. It makes complete sense.”

One of the doula’s roles in the delivery room, in the sometimes clinical and controlled atmosphere of a hospital – is to introduce room for “the sacred ancient miraculous thing that’s happening,” Barnes explains. “No matter how much we want to say we can control it… We can’t ever really. [Birth] is in control of us.”

Doulas working in the prison system provide an extraordinary refuge for the expectant and postpartum mother. They work closely with their clients, meeting week after week to give what the prison cannot. The mothers find it in themselves to open up, despite the harsh conditions that surround them. For this, Barnes is most grateful.

“How admirable it is for these women to trust another person when they’ve been hurt by many people. That’s just amazing.”

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