Reflection on the Perinatal Incarceration Learning Summit

by Emily Bullins, NARAL Pro-Choice NC NPIP Intern

On Thursday, May 31st, I attended the Perinatal Incarceration Summit alongside Lynne, Tara, Nicole, and Linda from NARAL Pro-Choice NC. The conference was hosted by a collection of advocacy groups including SisterSong, NARAL Pro-Choice NC, MomsRising, and several other groups fighting for reproductive justice for women who are and have been incarcerated. One of the main focuses of this summit was an anti-shackling campaign led by SisterSong. This conference consisted of several panels that covered action plans, best practices for advocacy, and featured a panel of formerly incarcerated women who shared their lived experiences of being pregnant in prison.

This conference was actually my first day as one of the NARAL Pro-Choice NC summer interns! I found it to be a very helpful reminder of how expansive reproductive justice work can be. To be completely honest, reproductive justice for people who are incarcerated was something I had not considered when thinking about what reproductive justice looks like. I was largely unaware of the neglect and abuse of many incarcerated people in regards to their reproductive health. SisterSong raised a particularly eye-opening issue to my attention through their anti-shackling campaign. Incarcerated people who are pregnant are shackled throughout their pregnancy and often times during labor as well. This can be an extraordinarily traumatizing process to give birth while shackled because it deprives pregnant people of any agency or bodily autonomy while giving birth. Those at the summit, including myself and our NARAL Pro-Choice NC team, seemed to all agree that shackling a pregnant person is dehumanizing and degrading.

I also want to bring attention to SisterSong’s anti-shackling efforts because I found it to be a great example of direct action within an abolitionist framework. As a Women’s and Gender Studies major at UNC, I have read many different works of feminist theory. For the most part, I found the pieces insightful but lacking direct action plans. I believe there must be a symbiotic relationship between theory and direction action, and that they cannot be separated from one another. SisterSong’s advocacy provided exactly such. While we were able to theorize alternatives to the penal system, rather than focus on reform, we were also able to discuss the immediate actions needed to advocate for those currently incarcerated.

May 31 2018 Perinatal Incarceration Learning Summit

Panelists from SpiritHouse, YWCA of Greensboro, and SisterSong (L-R) discuss reproductive justice and activist strategies.

The conference was incredibly informative and its speakers and attendees alike brought so much wisdom to the table. I was very satisfied by the insistence of panelists and our hosts to raise the voices of those with lived experiences. It was a powerful reminder to remember that in public service, the question to ask is “What do you need?” not “What do I think you need?”  Our speakers included several women who had been formerly incarcerated, and I was so grateful that they would share their stories.  I believe there is no greater evidence for injustice than lived experience. In my academic career, I have learned that science and facts, though widely accepted as hard truths, can be manipulated to explain certain phenomena or promote specific goals. This is why I find personal testimony to be such a vital part of understanding why reproductive justice advocacy is needed. The stories of these women cannot be denied and were clear proof that we need to continue to work towards dismantling oppressive systems and empowering people who are incarcerated to have access to the full rights to which they are entitled.

Additionally, I was able to learn about what language to use when discussing perinatal justice for incarcerated people. A label like inmate, offender, and prisoner disempower people to be self-advocates and to know and practice the rights to which they are entitled. Also, words like criminal pass a judgement onto these people when, most of the time, we are not fully aware of their circumstances. In our advocacy, it is important to serve people without judgement or bias. I was unaware that terms like “incarcerated person” or “person who is incarcerated” are preferred to inmate. Panelists also used language that illustrated how dehumanizing and unjust aspects of the penal system can be. For example, prison cells were referred to as cages. The intentional use of that language was a clear way to frame our conversation as one with the goal of abolition. For more information and discussion about the language used to describe incarcerated people, I recommend Inmate. Prisoner. Other. Discussed by Blair Hickman and Inmate. Parolee. Felon. Discuss by Bill Keller, both published by The Marshall Project.

We ended the conference in song led by SisterSong’s Executive Director, Monica Raye Simpson. This was a great way to conclude a day of powerful coalition building and to energize us for the next steps in our work. Overall, the conference expanded my understanding of reproductive justice and motivated me to continue as an advocate for equal and equitable access to reproductive health care for all.

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