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Being pregnant and in prison is a heartbreakingly bad combination. Bethany Kotlar is trying to improve the situation for moms and moms-to-be in Georgia’s lockups.
She’s the founder of Motherhood Beyond Bars, a four-year-old volunteer partnership with Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, the Urban Health Initiative, and Centering Youth. MBB brings childbirth education, prenatal yoga, and postpartum health education and counseling services to pregnant incarcerated women and new mothers in Georgia’s prisons.
Here, Hutchens talks about the program, the women she meets, and some of her goals for MBB.
Can you tell me the story of a prisoner you’ve met, who seemed to gain a lot from MBB?
The one that sticks out in my mind the most is one mother who gave birth to her last child in prison. She had breastfed her other children and was so upset that she couldn’t do that for her youngest. She had so much guilt that she couldn’t be the kind of mother she was used to being from prison, so we spent a lot of time talking about all the ways she could parent from far away. One day she came to me and asked me, almost shyly, how long frozen breast milk kept for. I told her and she broke out into a huge smile. Her mom had found some breast milk the woman had stored and gave it to the baby. We talked about all of the great things he was getting from that milk, and she was just so happy she could give something to him from prison. She later told me that Motherhood Beyond Bars helped her feel that she was a mother again, and not just a number.
What are your plans for the program, going forward?
We just want to keep being there for the women in whatever way we can. We would love to start our doula program, a reentry program, and get better nutrition for pregnant and postpartum moms into the prison.
What sorts of challenges do you face?
We always struggle with a lack of funding. We are a small group of volunteers who have kept this running out of sheer force of will. We don’t have the nonprofit structure or history necessary to get much grant funding, so we rely on private donations. We are chronically underfunded. It would be great to eventually have someone full time to run these programs and be able to go after funds to start more. This population has a lot of needs.
What kinds of misconceptions do people have about women in prison?
I think people expect these tough, hardened people who are somehow dangerous or scary. It’s easier to stomach incarceration when you think of people like that—as needing to be in prison for the safety of society. In reality, we are all one bad decision away from prison. Sometimes we are just someone else’s bad decision away from prison. Most of our participants are there because they got addicted to something, or they fell on hard times and forged a couple of checks, or they fell in with the wrong people and ended up doing something they didn’t plan on. No incarcerated mother I have met wanted to leave her children behind. Several have realized they are not the best people to raise their children. I respect them so much for having the courage to make that sacrifice. Many are moms that are just trying to do their best and made some mistakes.