Hamline News

Center for Justice and Law Conference Sparks Discussion of Parenthood in Prison

Text that reads Reproductive (In)Justice: Birth Behind Bars on a red background along with the Hamline Center for Justice and Law logo

On April 30, more than 400 attendees from around the world participated in the Hamline University Center for Justice and Law’s “Reproductive (In)Justice: Birth Behind Bars” webinar conference. As part of the Center’s focus on enhancing health equity for all, the virtual daylong conference highlighted the experiences of people who gave birth while incarcerated, along with the organizations and partners providing support to these people.

The event was a collaboration in the works for months, building on CJL’s 2020-2021 theme of “Health, Justice, and the Law.” Partnering with CJL were reproductive justice advocates representing the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, Alabama Prison Birth Project, and the Ostara Initiative, each of which supports pregnant, birthing, and parenting people impacted by the justice system. Also central to the planning process was a team of students (and students who have since graduated)—Tsion Tulu ’21, Dieu Do ’21, Metadel Lee ’22—and one recent graduate, Raie Gessesse ’20.

“We had an incredible team of women on campus who are already doing amazing work, but this was a chance for them to do something outward facing, to have a larger platform to spread our social justice and health equity mission,” said Susi Keefe, CJL director and associate professor of public health sciences and sociology.

Leading up to the event, other students in a class titled “Health, Justice, and Law” conducted social media interviews with prison doulas and justice-impacted people to share stories, raise awareness, and spread the word about the conference. The project bridged topics of criminal justice and public health, creating an interdisciplinary experience for students.

At the conference, speakers and panelists included justice-impacted individuals, including people who have given birth while incarcerated, and reproductive justice advocates, including Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.

The core of the event was sharing the stories of those impacted by prison birth—which, for both attendees and speakers, was an emotional, intimate experience. Keynote speaker Autumn Mason, now a peer and re-entry support specialist, shared her journey of birth and motherhood while incarcerated, and how that experience has shaped her current work as a doula for justice-impacted mothers.

“We weren’t expecting it to have such an emotional effect,” said Keefe of the panelists. “They’ve all reached out since then to say it’s so validating and powerful to share my story and be in community with others who have been through the same thing. We couldn’t have hoped for more from that.”

The conference reflect’s CJL’s larger goal of hosting antiracist programs, said Keefe, especially since incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color. This includes ensuring diverse representation at all levels, from speakers and facilitators to content and topics discussed. It’s not enough to talk about antiracism; by gathering advocates and affected individuals, as well as academics from around the world, CJL can help turn ideas into action.

“We want to really inspire people to act and to listen,” said Keefe. “In listening to the folks who are most impacted and asking them ‘What do they need?’ the folks who participate in our work can be inspired to make change.”

Videos of conference panels and speakers are available on CJL’s Facebook page.

Written by Anne Kopas
May 26, 2021