Pregnant inmates cut off from volunteer doulas, says women's support group

Inmates at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., have been denied access to free doula support since May, according to a group that previously provided the service.

Program coordinator says group hasn't had access to prison since a new warden took over in June

Joanne Doucette had her daughter while incarcerated and said it would have been helpful to have a doula. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)

Inmates at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., have been denied access to free doula support since May, according to a group that previously provided the service. 

Women's Wellness Within is a collaboration of women's support groups that offers free pre-natal and post-partum care workshops and provides volunteer doulas to assist inmates during pregnancy, birth, and after the baby is born. The group also provides care for women at the provincial jail in Burnside.

It includes about 25 women from several groups including the IWK Midwives, the Chebucto Family Centre/IWK Volunteer Doula Program, the Elizabeth Fry Societies of Cape Breton and Mainland N.S., and the Halifax Branch of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund. 

Free service denied

It began working with women at the federal Nova Institution for Women in the fall of 2015, and provided free services for three pregnant women through the winter. The group offers doulas who provide parenting and breastfeeding information and are present during labour and delivery.

But, in May, the group requested a formal written agreement be signed with the institution, to allow volunteers to offer free services, at no cost to the institution.

According to coordinator Martha Paynter, federal correction officials never responded. 

"We haven't had responses to our many pleas," said Paynter. 

4 women denied service

"It's just been enough," she said. "We know through the grapevine of about four women that have been denied service because of this bureaucracy, or red tape, or whatever you want to call this. And that's too many." 

Correctional Service Canada was unavailable for comment. 

Joanne Doucette, a Prince Edward Island woman who gave birth to her daughter while serving time at the Nova Institution for Women in 2014, said doulas should be allowed. 

The program had not yet started when Doucette was in prison, but she said a doula would have been helpful. 

"There's always questions: 'is this right, is that normal, how am I going to do this?'" said Doucette. "You're in jail, you're by yourself, you just need to know that there's someone that will support you, for no other reason, just to support you."

Paynter said pregnancy can be a scary experience for a woman in prison. 

"Women in prison have largely been victims themselves of extreme poverty, violence, addiction," said Paynter.

"They need all the support in the world. This is something that if they were outside, they could have, and it's transformative in a woman's life." 

An 'essential source of information'

Paynter argues her group is also key in providing health information to pregnant women. 

"Women who are incarcerated, they don't have the internet. They can't log on, and go through the welcome to parenting Public Health online program. To make a phone call, it costs them money, they don't have money, they are imprisoned. So we are an essential source of information." 

About the Author

Stephanie vanKampen


Stephanie vanKampen is a videojournalist with the CBC News Arts & Entertainment Unit in Toronto. Send story ideas to stephanie.vankampen