Raising awareness of prison doulas

Doulas have provided emotional and physical support to women giving birth for centuries. And they are becoming a larger presence in the U.S. prison system as the population of incarcerated women continues to rise. Senior Chloë LeStage hopes that a thesis dedicated to the work of these professionals will help others learn of their crucial mission and put her on the path to becoming one herself.

“I want to be in the birth justice world and the reproductive justice world and being a prison doula, I think, is one way to do that,” the 24-year-old said. “I have a lot of respect for people who do it, and I’m also very aware that I’ve not given birth. I’m not a parent, and I have no proximity to children. I’m in it for the parents.”

LeStage received her introduction to the world of doulas in 2020, when her sophomore year at Harvard was upended amid pandemic evacuations and lockdowns. She and a group of friends decided to take a gap year instead of doing online coursework. LeStage, who had taken a gap year prior to attending Harvard, and her now-roommate Olivia Weeks ’23 spent a year traveling from Cape Cod to Oregon, on to California and finally to Georgia.

“I was searching for different opportunities with organizations that needed virtual help. I wanted to find a job that could provide me with some semblance of experience doing social justice-oriented work, most importantly with people who have committed their lives to serving justice-impacted communities,” the joint concentrator in social studies and studies of women, gender, sexuality said.

In Georgia, LeStage landed a job at a criminal justice reform nonprofit called Fair Fight Initiative, where she worked remotely as a paralegal assistant. She was tasked with answering questions from incarcerated people and building a re-entry resource list for the jail in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

She also found time to take a nine-week online birth-doula training program. Licensing is not required to work as a doula, but individuals can get different certifications to prove they have been trained. Typically doulas offer emotional support to pregnant and postpartum patients, but they also work with clients going through abortions or miscarriages. A doula’s role involves a range of nonmedical responsibilities, including creating safe spaces, providing comfort through massages, verbal encouragement, blankets, and warm baths, and helping women in labor with pain management, positioning, and advice.

“Doula work is at an intersection of so many things that I care about, [from] mass incarceration and how that impacts people’s lives and [their] communities, but also reproductive health [and] reproductive justice,” she said. “Doula work in general is a really amazing practice. I’m not talking about the kind of rich, whitewashed, froufrou doula work portrayed by the media. What I’m studying and most inspired by is much more based on Black birth-work practices and community care.”

Focusing on Black birth practices and care has a direct impact on combating high Black maternal mortality rates in the U.S. and medicalized racism. Many of the courses LeStage has taken at Harvard, including “Medical Management of the Female Body” and “World Health: Challenges and Opportunities,” have touched on those very issues, so when it came time to decide what to focus her first junior paper on, she decided to write about prison doulas, also known as jail doulas or birth workers.

“What is most exciting about it to me is that prison doulas exist in an intermediary role between a lot of different systems of harm, and systems like health care and prison,” she said. Prison doulas are “serving clients and their families [and] are sitting in between all these different groups at the same time that they have to build positive relationships with carceral systems. They are also mobilizing and organizing to change that system and to end prison birth.”

After her gap year, LeStage decided to make prison doulas the focus of her senior thesis with the support of two key mentors, thesis adviser Kierstan Kaushal-Carter, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in African and African American studies and government, and Professor Caroline Light, director of undergraduate studies and senior lecturer on studies of women, gender, and sexuality.

“Harvard is full of students who care a lot about the world around them. They don’t just want to sit in a room and theorize how inequality happens,” Light said. “Chloë is one of those people who actually thinks about how do we mitigate these harms? How do we change these structures? How do we challenge existing structures? She’s doing that. She’s leading efforts to think about how to mitigate harm, especially for birthing people in carceral spaces.”

For LeStage, it’s important to bring what she learned during her research into the real world. Last summer, she interned with the Women & Justice Project (WJP), a New York organization that serves current and formerly incarcerated cis and trans women. WJP intends to build a curriculum for a doula program at Rikers Island, one of most notorious jails in the U.S. With her time at Harvard coming to an end, LeStage hopes to move to New York to continue working for WJP.

“Birth justice, under the umbrella of reproductive justice, is about the right to access safe and dignified pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and abortion experiences for all, particularly people of color who are the most at risk in so many different avenues,” she said.

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