What is it like to give birth — and then be forced to say goodbye to your baby 24 hours later?
To most mothers, it’s a scenario that’s unimaginable. But it’s exactly what’s facing the dozens of pregnant women behind bars in any given year at Alabama’s notorious Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, most of whom are locked up for drug-related offenses.
Tutwiler, a documentary short directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon (Heroin(e), Recovery Boys) and reported and produced by The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo, offers an unforgettable window into the lives of incarcerated pregnant women — and what happens to their newborns.
“At one time we had three generations of women at Tutwiler that were from the same family,” Wendy Williams, the state prison system’s Deputy Commissioner of Women’s Services said. “And of course we have that concern every time a woman comes to us pregnant: Is this going to be another cycle?”
As the film explores, it’s a cycle that the prison, with the help of local non-profits, is trying to break. Long regarded as one of the worst women’s prisons in the U.S., Tutwiler is now making changes — including working with the Alabama Prison Birth Project to provide pregnant inmates with support and resources.
Many of these women are survivors of domestic violence and have struggled with substance abuse issues and addiction disorders. Working with a group of doulas, they attend parenting classes, dream up names for their babies, and plan for how they’ll maintain their sobriety once they’ve served their time.
But still, nothing can fully prepare them for what’s to come: Once they’re taken to a nearby hospital to give birth, they typically get 24 hours with their newborn before being sent back to prison.
As one incarcerated woman says, “When you were locked up your whole pregnancy and it was just you and that baby, and then to walk away from the person that’s been there with you, it makes the strongest person break.”
There are more than 200,000 women in prison or jail, and it’s estimated that 12,000 pregnant women are incarcerated every year. As women are now the fastest growing incarcerated population in the U.S., Tutwiler is a powerful lens into the reality of pregnancy and parenthood behind bars.