Every year, dozens of pregnant women are sentenced to Julia Tutwiler Prison in Alabama, long considered one of the worst female prisons in the country. Like most prisons, Tutwiler has nowhere for babies to live, so, for these expectant mothers, giving birth means saying goodbye.
Christy Reach, who was incarcerated at Tutwiler, captured the sadness of this experience when I talked to her in prison in the spring of 2018, one month before her daughter Aryanna was born and taken away by Alabama’s foster care agency: “I’m afraid leaving her will make me grow cold inside.”
In an attempt to ease the trauma, the prison in 2018 began allowing doulas—professionals trained in childbirth—to attend births, holding hands, wiping tears, and reminding the mothers to breathe. Mothers still usually have only about 24 hours to bond with their babies before they are split apart and the women are sent back to lockup, a moment everyone refers to as “the separation.” But at least new mothers no longer give birth with only a doctor and prison officer present.
Alabama’s program is modeled after the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which launched in 2010. Since that program started, the C-section rate has dropped, which means imprisoned mothers in Minnesota are having healthier, less risky births. The doulas there and in Alabama recently merged and are now working to get similar programs started in other prisons across the country.
“It’s not just the mother experiencing the trauma” of prison pregnancy and separation, said Ashley Lovell, director of the Tutwiler program, called the Alabama Prison Birth Project. “It’s also the newborn.”
I first visited Tutwiler in June of 2018 to attend a class for pregnant and postpartum women run by the doulas. It’s rare for a prison to open its doors to a reporter, but officials there are proud of their doula program, and eager to dispel Tutwiler’s wretched reputation. I asked to return with a filmmaker, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, and they agreed. Between us, Elaine and I spent nearly 40 days in Alabama to make “Tutwiler,” a documentary produced in collaboration with the PBS series Frontline. The film is available for streaming on The Marshall Project and Frontline (PBS), in the PBS Video App and on YouTube, and will have its broadcast premiere on May 19 at 8 p.m. ET on America ReFramed on WORLD Channel.
I’ve reported on sexual abuse in prisons many times, so I knew about Tutwiler. In 2014 the Justice Department published findings from an investigation, calling Tutwiler a “toxic sexualized environment” where more than a third of the staff had had sex with the incarcerated women. Several prisoners allegedly had given birth to prison officers’ children. Because of the inherent power imbalance, sex with a prisoner is a crime, regardless of consent, but officers are rarely prosecuted.
The Justice investigation forced some changes. Hundreds of security cameras were installed. More female officers were hired, flipping the majority-male correctional staff. Now the prison is run mostly by women. And in recent years, there have been no reports of officers fathering prisoners’ children. The women in the film arrived at Tutwiler pregnant.
Women make up roughly a tenth of those confined in the country’s prisons and jails, but women are now the fastest growing incarcerated population. More than 200,000 women are currently held in prison or jail, an increase of more than 700 percent since 1980. Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates for women in the country.
There are estimates that roughly 12,000 pregnant women are incarcerated in jails and prisons in the United States every year, but no government agency keeps track. There are no national standards for the care of pregnant prisoners. Fewer than a dozen states have prison nurseries where babies can stay, but the vast majority of women who give birth behind bars, including those in Alabama, do not have that option.
Built in 1942, Tutwiler is Alabama's oldest prison, and looks like it. It is Alabama’s only maximum-security prison for women and home to the state’s female death row. Designed for about 550 prisoners, it housed about 850 at the time we were filming, and staff levels were short by about 90 officers. Prisoners complain that substance abuse classes are limited, people are idle, and drug use is common.
The pregnant women are generally held in a dorm for sick prisoners. It’s one of the only areas with air conditioning, and it’s closest to the infirmary. A few months before we started filming one of the women gave birth on a gurney in the hallway of the prison. According to several prisoners, the nurses sent her back to the dorm after she went to the medical unit multiple times to report she was in labor. A prison spokesperson said the woman was provided with proper medical care, and that “the pace at which this particular inmate’s labor progressed was unpredictable.”
While at Tutwiler, the expectant moms typically receive one ultrasound and prison visits from the doctor. Healthcare services are contracted out to Wexford, one of the largest for-profit prison medical providers in the country. Whenever we walked through the infirmary, the benches along the wall were packed with women waiting for their turn to speak with medical staff.
Over the course of numerous trips to Tutwiler, Elaine and I saw deep problems, but also a sincere desire to make the place more humane. Reporting this story required a balance of journalistic inquiry and respect for boundaries. We told all the women that if they wanted us to stop filming them, we would. Initially, a public information officer and correctional officer escorted us wherever we went, and they occasionally tried to steer our interviews away from negative stories about the prison. “If certain topics compromise security, it is our duty to protect that information,” a prison spokesperson said. But the more often we visited, the more we were left on our own.
After months of periodic visits to Tutwiler, we focused on Misty Cook, 36. She was shy but let us follow her during her final weeks of pregnancy, and she became the main focus of the film. Her life experiences were familiar to many of the women in the doula program: Her father was incarcerated when she was a child, she’d been a victim of domestic violence; and she was in prison on a low-level drug charge.
Cook and her dorm-mates also suffered from a stress-inducing lack of information. Many of the mothers-to-be we met had only a vague sense of their release dates from prison and of who would have custody of their babies. Cook was given three different due dates for her son Elijah’s birth. Shortly before the first, she learned that the temporary home she had proposed for her newborn was rejected, which put her at risk of losing custody to the state. Cook said that a prison social worker told her she would be released any day from Tutwiler, and that she should refuse to be induced at the hospital so that she could give birth as a free woman. (Prison officials had no comment on this claim.) Cook did not leave prison until Elijah was about a month old.
Adding to her anxiety: Cook had gestational diabetes, which can cause complications for both the mother and her baby. (Alabama has historically had one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the nation.)
Hoping to film Cook on her way to Baptist Medical Center South for her baby’s birth, Elaine and I waited in a casino hotel down the street from the prison, monitoring the local ambulance company’s radio dispatch.
The wardens, the state corrections department and the ambulance company were cooperating with our project. But the hospital did not. I showed a hospital representative letters from multiple incarcerated women affirming that they wanted us to be there while they gave birth. Within an hour I received an email: “[T]his time between mom and baby is to be kept private and no videoing will be allowed on any device … The mother and patient are to be protected.” This meant doulas couldn’t use their phones to record on our behalf, either.
The hospital is where the doulas perform their most important work. Beyond emotional support, they assist prisoners with breastfeeding and help negotiate with hospital staff. They take pictures and record audio of the mother reading a book that her baby can listen to later. Mothers swap knit hats and blankets with their babies, so when they’re apart they can keep bonding through scent.
A day after Cook gave birth to Elijah, she returned to the prison. She walked with a slight limp, clutching her back. At the health care unit, where she was checked back in, she was asked about nearly every item she brought back with her from the hospital, including baby lotion and her own underwear. After this standard procedure, she was cleared. A health care worker said cheerfully, “Welcome back!”
At the last minute, Cook had decided to send her baby to the Adullam House, a group home several miles from the prison where dozens of children live, including a handful of babies whose mothers are at Tutwiler. We went with some of the Adullam House staff to pick up Elijah at the hospital. A hospital employee wheeled him out to the car. Everyone remarked how beautiful he was and how excited they were to meet him.
He was two days old and weighed about eight pounds at birth. He looked alert. I wondered what the separation felt like to him.
Not all deliveries go smoothly. After Brittany Powell, 27, gave birth, her new son Tylan was placed in the intensive-care unit for an infection. Powell was quickly sent back to Tutwiler, where anxiety about her baby consumed her.
She found a connection to Tylan by pumping breast milk in a new lactation room. Two hospital-grade breast pumps are housed in an old solitary confinement cell the size of a parking space, where prisoners have painted the walls with pastels and nurses have sewn curtains for the small window. It is a rare zone of quiet in the clamor of prison.
Powell, like almost every pregnant woman and postpartum mom we met at Tutwiler—and about a quarter of women incarcerated nationwide—is serving time for drug charges. Some women said they had expected incarceration would force them to get sober. But many said they were surprised by the lack of supervision at the prison. We heard stories of women lining up to snort crushed pills off the toilet tanks.
Prison officials have responded by regularly drug testing mothers who are pumping milk for their babies. “The presence of illegal drugs within our facilities is an unfortunate reality that our staff works to combat every day,” a prison spokesperson said.
For Powell, who served several months for drug possession and receiving stolen property, pumping was some comfort. But she still questioned the wisdom of incarcerating people who struggle with addiction. “They just threw us behind bars, behind the fence, just to live with a bunch of addicts,” she told us.
Tutwiler stands just off U.S. Route 231, a road that stretches from Indiana to Florida. The women sit outside behind barbed wire to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, play cards, and watch as cars speed by.
Once a week, the doulas from the Alabama Prison Birth Project arrive to teach a childbirth class. Local churches donate food, a spread heavy on everything prison meals often lack: fresh fruits and vegetables and non-processed meats.
The meetings can get emotional. Some prisoners’ babies are with relatives who try to keep them connected to their kids. Other children are placed in foster care, and their mothers don’t always know where they are.
Other babies are at the Adullam House, in temporary custody until the mothers’ release. Women whose babies are placed there usually get once-a-month visits at the prison and plan to be reunited when released.
Shakala Johnson, who was in prison for assault, was turned down by the Adullam House and wasn’t sure when, if ever, she would see her son, who was in the custody of the state child welfare agency. She didn’t talk about her grief, but one day the doulas passed around dolls that represented babies at different stages in the womb. Johnson held one to her chest, gently tapped the doll’s back and curled her face in close. She sat like that for several minutes.
There is a buzz in the prison dorm when visiting day approaches. Mothers who have children coming are giddy, while everyone tries to console the mothers who are left out.
Jennifer Baldwin, who was sent to prison for shoplifting clothes, drew eyeliner on with a wet-tipped colored pencil and had her hair in braids for the occasion. She hadn’t seen her son, Rodriguez, 8, or her newborn, 5-month-old Ja’bar, in about a month. When her children arrived that day, Baldwin, 37, hugged them over and over and asked her oldest about school and friends. But she was devastated that Ja'bar wouldn't make eye contact. She feared he didn’t recognize her.
There were several times during the weeks I spent reporting when I couldn’t stop the tears from coming. This visiting day was one of them.
A couple hours into the visit, the announcement came: “Five more minutes!” A silence fell over the room. It was time for another separation.
Update: Every woman featured in “Tutwiler” has since been released from prison. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the doulas have been temporarily barred from visiting pregnant and postpartum women still at the prison and from attending their births.
“Tutwiler” is available for streaming on The Marshall Project and Frontline (PBS), in the PBS Video App and on YouTube, and will have its broadcast premiere on May 19 at 8 p.m. ET on America ReFramed on WORLD Channel
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY Elaine McMillion Sheldon
PRODUCED & REPORTED BY Alysia Santo
EDITED BY Chad Ervin and Elaine McMillion Sheldon
PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY Elaine McMillion Sheldon
ORIGINAL MUSIC Francois-Paul Aïche
SENIOR PRODUCER Carla Borrás
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER Molly Born
ADDITIONAL EDITING Iva Radivojevic and Molly Born
ADDITIONAL CAMERA Lily Keber and Nisa East
ONLINE EDITOR/COLORIST Jim Ferguson
SOUND MIX Jim Sullivan
SPECIAL THANKS Penelope Falk Leslie Simmer Curren Sheldon Kristen Nutile Sarah Ginsburg Kirk Barrett, Haynes Ambulance Erica Gerrity, Minnesota Prison Doula Project Society Hill United Methodist Church - Auburn, Ala. Liberty United Methodist Church - Notasulga, Ala. Coaches Corner - Wetumpka, Ala. Aid to Inmate Mothers Inc.
FOR THE MARSHALL PROJECT
DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS & STRATEGY Ruth Baldwin
MANAGING EDITOR Geraldine Sealey
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Susan Chira
PRODUCTION COORDINATOR Brenna Verre
DIGITAL CONTENT COORDINATOR Miles Alvord
SERIES COORDINATING PRODUCER Amy Gaines
SPECIAL COUNSEL Dale Cohen
SENIOR EDITOR Sarah Childress
DIRECTOR OF DIGITAL VIDEO Carla Borrás
MANAGING DIRECTOR Jim Bracciale
MANAGING EDITOR Andrew Metz
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Raney Aronson-Rath