photographing america’s pregnant prisoners

Shot against pastel municipal walls and bulletin boards pinned with pictures of her subject’s baby daddies, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott’s photographs of imprisoned mothers tell a story about America’s rapidly rising rate of female incarceration.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
24 September 2015, 1:50pm

VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

"When I reflect on vulnerable populations, I think being pregnant and incarcerated is just about as vulnerable as it gets," says Cheryl Hanna-Truscott. A trained midwife and specialist in treating victims of child abuse, Hanna-Truscott volunteers at one of the country's very few prison nurseries - where, for the past 12 years, she's also been photographing the inmates, tattoos, teething babies and all.

Her project, "Protective Custody," calls attention to the increasing rate of female incarceration in the US; there was a 646% rise between 1980 and 2010, 1.5 times higher than the rate for men. It also documents the correspondingly high number of pregnant women and new mothers now living in US prisons. Since most incarcerated mothers (nearly three times the number of fathers) report being their children's primary caregivers, being sentenced as a new or expecting mother is catastrophic - for both women and their babies. The options, in most cases, are fostering, adoption or abortion.

In 1991, the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), a 10-minute drive from Hanna-Truscott's house, became one of 14 prisons around the country to launch a Residential Parenting Program. "The other blocks are like Orange Is the New Black," says Hanna-Truscott of the prison, "They have stacked-up beds, and few room divides. But J Unit [where the program's mothers live] has rooms like college dorms, and there are volunteer caregivers who act like nannies when the women have classes or court." While not all women qualify to receive the program's benefits -- a prisoner's sentence must be over within two and a half years of her child's birth, and for a non-violent crime -- the women who enter J Unit get what many of them see as a second chance. And, most importantly, women who deliver during their sentence avoid the trauma of having their baby torn from their arms hours after birth.

We spoke to Hanna-Truscott about the struggles women face in prison, the rising incarceration rate and why she won't show prisoners' track marks in her photographs.

Does having a child in prison give women a different perspective on serving their time?
What I hear from so many of them is that the program has given them a second chance. Some of them have lost other children and are so bereft and down on themselves. So, as much as they hate to admit it, sometimes they'll tell me, "I'm so grateful to be here. It's like God has given me another chance." The program also gives mothers access to an Early Headstart program, which teaches them about their baby's developmental stages. Many of the women aren't educated about being mothers, so it really enhances their parenting abilities.

What are some of the major difficulties these mothers deal with in prison?
There's an application process for the program, so some of the mothers are only a few weeks away from delivering when they're accepted. It means they spend a lot of time in high anxiety and stress, and that's not good for pregnancies. Also, prison in general is a stressful environment. In the program, the moms are given support, but there's also the anxiety of being mom, and thinking 'Am I don't this this right? Am I good enough?'

What are some of the wider issues incarcerated women face, whether they're mothers or not?
First of all, there's the family [on the outside], which can be really dysfunctional. Then there's the social organization within the prison that is sometimes unhealthy. Have you ever watched Orange Is the New Black? There are favors and friends who aren't really your friends - that stuff does go on. Other stresses: a lot of the women are traumatized. Sometimes they have learning disabilities or they've never had anyone who could vouch for them - so they have low education levels and no skills. Which means they also have employment issues when they get out. When they're released, [ex-convicts] get $40, a change of clothes and a bus ticket. So they have to start a new life -- and for the women I work with, that's also with a baby.

It's hard, too, to get housing on the outside, because people often don't want to rent to felons. Many of the women have unaddressed drug issues also, or other unresolved issues. I can see [prison] being this very therapeutic place, but the funding just isn't there.

What were most of the women in the nursery program convicted for?
Mostly drug-related crimes. They weren't necessarily doing or selling drugs, but the crime often has something to do with addiction -- maybe they needed money so they stole or they got into a car accident under the influence and someone got injured. So I'm surprised to learn that even though there are drug programs, some woman don't qualify because the crimes for which they were convicted are not directly drug-related. I spoke to a woman who wanted to get treatment but wasn't eligible.

Have you stayed in touch with any of the mothers after they've been released?
Only informally - sometimes I'll ask the other staff how they're doing. Some of the women who did really well inside struggle after, and some who you think don't stand a chance in hell do fine. It's not always what you might expect. I went into the program thinking 'this is a cure-all' and it isn't always. But I think the babies do well. And it's also about giving the babies a chance.

What was your main goal when you started photographing the women?
Raising awareness. I thought, 'No one's hearing about this.' [The program] is something I really strongly believe in professionally and personally. Second of all, I found the photographic challenges really interesting. I got criticized in the early days because my pictures were too "lovely" - they weren't edgy enough, they didn't show all the prisoners' bad teeth and track marks. But that reinforced my resolve. You see edgy pictures of prisoners all the time. You don't ever see pictures of prisoners who are really trying to fall in love with their babies.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Cheryl Hanna-Truscott

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