“It seemed like it was happening in secret or private that she was dealing with this on her own,” Erica Gerrity ’05 M.S.W. said, recalling her internship at Shakopee Women’s Prison. As part of her placement, Gerrity sometimes would visit mothers who had given birth while incarcerated to take pictures of their babies.
When Gerrity began her internship at the prison, incarcerated women would give birth surrounded by hospital and prison staff. Three days after birth the women would give up their babies to family members they weren’t permitted to see. It was legal to shackle pregnant and postpartum women. The women had limited resources available to them; the only prenatal group was taught by whoever was available in the prison.
Gerrity wanted to do better.
Gerrity’s graduate clinical paper focused on preventing child abuse, but she wanted to look at even earlier prevention. With at-risk women in mind, she studied what interventions could do be done closest to conception.
She came up with doulas, who are trained to educate and assist women during and after childbirth, which can result in healthier and less-costly births.
“Pregnancy is such a window of opportunity,” Gerrity said. “Women are hormonally obsessed with their babies. They want to do better with their babies. It’s an opportunity for change and new ideas. I wanted to seize that opportunity.”
Gerrity became certified as a doula. Through a friend, she connected with Everyday Miracles, a nonprofit that provides prenatal education and birth support for at-risk moms. Everyday Miracles agreed to back Gerrity’s work, which is how Isis Rising was founded.
Named after the goddess, Isis Rising began in Shakopee’s Women Prison in 2011. Gerrity and her team provide a group that meets two hours a week. The group is for pregnant women or women who have had a baby in the last year; women who fall into this category make up 25 percent of all incarcerated women, Gerrity said. A doula is also with a woman when she gives birth, providing an emotional and physical support system.
Gerrity recalled speaking with a new mother who was about to be separated from her child.
“She’s looking at her baby, talking about her baby, talking emotionally about how she’s doing, all the normal stuff, and then she paused for a second, and was like, ‘Oh God, Erica, how did people ever do this by themselves?’ She just thought about that deeply for a moment and was terrified at the possibility,” Gerrity said.
As Isis Rising worked the staff heard of the great need for programs in other prisons. Isis Rising found that to be true through an informal needs assessment of other metro jails. In 2013 they expanded into Hennepin County Adult Correctional Facility and the Ramsey County Jail.
A large part of Gerrity's work is fighting against the misconception of what happens and who is inside of a prison.
“There is a significant lack of understanding of why people go to prison,” Gerrity said. “There are a lot of mental health issues, a lot of chemical dependency issues. What I would call someone who is mentally unwell is a typical incarcerated person. (Prisons) are really filling the role of what mental institutions used to do.”
Correctional facilities are concerned with public perception, and a lack of understanding is often what makes it difficult to get public support, Gerrity said.
“Almost anyone can get behind the idea that these children are considerably at-risk, and that we’re providing an intervention for their mother while they’re pregnant to give them a better, healthy start to life,” Gerrity said. She said extreme ends of the spectrum challenge why or how the work is being done. “Significant feminists get frustrated, because they believe our focus should be that all women deserve to be treated well. Conservatives say, ‘Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.’”
Gerrity said this type of prevention work is especially important for incarcerated mothers who are struggling with addiction, because being separated from their children can be a stressor.
Isis Rising’s work also provides a valuable support system to prison staff.
“Our society says that the experience of incarceration is beneficial, so if we want to work in that system and buy into it, we need to be respectful of that system," Gerrity said. "We need to be respectful of the staff who takes pride in the work they’re doing."
Implementing statewide change
The birth community approached Isis Rising last year to provide stories of what happens inside prisons, Gerrity said. The experience proved beneficial to Minnesota legislation passed in summer 2014 that prohibits the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women and allows for a doula.
Rebecca Gulstad, who is pursuing her M.S.W. and has worked with Hennepin County Juvenile Probation for the last 16 years, currently is interning with Isis Rising. She said one of the most important parts of Isis Rising's work is to make sure incarcerated women's voices are heard.
"(Isis Rising) is important because it’s giving (incarcerated) women, who are pregnant or mothers, a voice," Gulstad said. "They're not just forgotten because they're imprisoned." She said she's been impressed with just how much change Isis Rising has made, especially for being a small organization. "All the work done since the program was started has impacted so many people. Through explaining what they do, they've opened the eyes of people to a different point of view."
Isis Rising is now looking toward how the legislation, which must be implemented by July 1, can effectively and efficiently be put into place. Gerrity was part of a legislative advisory committee where stakeholders across the state met to determine what key needs were for the population of incarcerated women.
“I’m trying to be respectful of people, but challenge them at the same time,” Gerrity said. “People on the outside are like, ‘What are you even telling me? It’s horrifying what you’re telling me.’ Our role has been to create a conversation to help people look at the practice. Do we agree to this or we do not agree to this, collectively?”
A large part of their focus is on training regional leaders to be informed volunteers who can go into prisons and help women give birth, and raising money to support that work. (Isis Rising is run off grants and donations.)
Gerrity and Isis Rising were featured as “changemakers” in December 2014 in the Minnesota Women’s Press. However, Gerrity said it was hard to take credit.
“There’s so many people that work on this, who cares about me?” Gerrity said. “There are all these people in our state who are incarcerated, and it’s their stories who motivate my work. … Hearing their stories has changed my whole life. It’s changed how I’m a mother. … I will never feel sad because I never have a big house. Isn’t it just luck what family you were born into? It has a lot to do with trauma, poverty, addiction. How blessed am I that I didn’t have to wrestle with those things in my lifetime?”