Tabatha Trammell, 55, is a certified prison doula based in Gwinnett County, Georgia, who uses her personal history to connect with incarcerated clients. In a post-Roe landscape, community-based doulas like Trammell could play a key role in helping pregnant people in custody advocate for themselves and get the mental and physical support they need.
When I got pregnant at 15, my family disowned me. They were real religious folks — Jehovah’s Witnesses. My church didn’t want to be bothered with me. And when everybody at school found out, they stopped being my friend. “Oh, she’s pregnant,” they’d whisper. “She’s pregnant.” So I hated being pregnant, and I hated children. My pregnancy was a shame.
The second time I was pregnant, I was in and out of jail. I was consistently arrested for selling drugs because that’s how I supplied my habit. Once, three weeks after giving birth, I was locked up in the Decatur Street annex of the Atlanta City Detention Center, which has since been closed. I told them at intake that I had just had a baby, but they did not come check on me or take me to medical so they could watch me. I was still bleeding, but I could hardly get any pads. Eventually, I had to use torn-up sheets.
For weeks, until I was bonded out, I cried and slept all day. I didn’t want to deal with the other ladies who were in the pod. I didn’t even want to deal with the reality of getting up and taking a shower. I was suffering postpartum depression, I had been on drugs, and I was locked in a room all day.
Today, I am just under 14 years sober, and I take care of my mental health. I’ve started an organization, Woman With a Plan, that helps connect girls and women returning home from prison to resources. I’m also a doula who is certified to work in prisons and jails.
I meet with my non-incarcerated clients in a clinic with baby stuff on the walls. In jail, I have to meet women in cold, gray concrete visiting rooms with heavy metal tables and plastic chairs.
Usually, I am nervous walking in because I know I have to gain my client’s trust. I always start off by laying my story out on the table. Once I tell my clients what I’ve been through, they open up.
I also ask new clients if they know what a doula is.
“Oh, it’s a lady that delivers babies,” most women respond.
But that’s not it; we’re not midwives. Doulas are much-needed emotional and physical support people. A lot of times — especially in prisons and jails — a birthing person doesn’t have a voice.
I serve as a second voice.
I tell my new clients I am not there to try and restructure the jail or replace the father or your partner. “I am here to support you as a person,” I say, “to make sure you are doing alright, and you are being treated right.”
I’ve had a few clients in Gwinnett County Jail who I met with via video classes. As in many other jails, women are cycling in and out for petty crimes. Some come in pregnant because they didn’t have the money to have an abortion, or because they just didn’t believe in it. I’ve met women who are pregnant because of incest or rape. Many are struggling with drug addiction and mental illness.
The way I see it is, for many women, the prisons and the jails might be the safest place for the baby while they are pregnant. It may be a place where they are getting their medical care. If she is out on the street doing drugs, she is not going to the doctor. It’s better to be prepared for pregnant women when they do go to jail, so we can connect them to resources.
To help women in jail, we have to be really creative and thoughtful. There are a lot of restrictions. Incarcerated women can’t have things that make their pregnancy easier, like pregnancy pillows and essential oils. We can’t go to their medical visits with them, but we follow up and ask them how the visits went. We talk about nutrition and how to work with the food they have. For example, the jails offer a snack between meals for pregnant women and diabetics. I have one client who says she is too tired to get up to receive the snack. But I encourage her to go because it may be a good substitute for a breakfast she doesn’t like.
I am also there to help women post-pregnancy. Most incarcerated women only have two days to bond with their baby after birth. Some give their children up for adoption, and others give their babies to family members. Sometimes the women are just trying to forget the traumatic experience of being separated from their babies, so they don’t like to talk about it with me during our follow-up visit. I don’t press them. Instead, I show them different ways of bonding with their baby even if they can’t be there. If their facility permits it, they can keep a blanket that the baby has slept in and cuddle with it, and they can send the baby home with a blanket with their scent.
When I look back, my experience being in and out of jail while pregnant chipped away at my inner core. It was hard on my spirit. But the doula work is healing because I get to help women who are going through what I went through. I try to remind women that this is just a situation — it is not their destination in life.