I am really excited to share my experiences as a mother, Black woman, storyteller, Clevelander, someone who has had abortions, and a woman who experienced pregnancy while in jail.
It’s probably no secret to you that the health conditions in jail are horrendous but particularly for those of us who were pregnant. For a nation that supposedly has the best healthcare on Earth, the reality for incarcerated women is nowhere near this myth. Cleveland has a high poverty rate–the second-highest poverty rate among large cities at 35 percent. As of April 2018, Ohio had 4,166 female prisoners, which is a little more than 8 percent of the over 50,000 prisoners in the system. This is a 6% increase of female prisoners since 2010, a result of criminalizing poverty and drug use rather than investing in education and healthcare. Preventative healthcare access is rapidly becoming a myth, especially for women living inside the prison walls. The prisons there, like many across the country, are substandard. They can’t possibly pass state health codes. It’s a human rights violation, especially for those of us who are trying to birth new life.
As some of you may know, more and more jails are ending in-person visitation and using a private, for-profit company’s system for video conferencing. For $13 per 20-minute call, people can see their families over a video phone. No more hugs with our kids, parents, fiancés, and husbands. No more holding hands while we talk. No more feeling the baby kick. This isolation has an impact on our mental and physical health. The United Nations has said that visitation is a human right. I can’t imagine how this inhumane policy would have impacted my health while I was incarcerated.
According to the Sentencing Project, one-in-25 women in state prisons and one-in-33 women in federal prisons are pregnant when they’re admitted. When I found out I was pregnant, I was in sitting in jail due to a bad situation that turned worse. Jails are full of people who have been criminalized simply for being poor. We’re criminalized for living in poverty and trying to access money to care for our families. At the time, my lawyer and family didn’t think I would actually go to jail. But I did, and that’s when I found out I was pregnant.
When I first went to county jail, I didn’t know I was pregnant. I found out through a TB test and other medical intake. I took the pregnancy test and found out when a nurse yelled, “Tell her the test is positive,” from another room. I was frozen. I didn’t have any emotion. I didn’t know if I should be happy or embarrassed or sad because of the way it was presented to me. I knew my boyfriend and I would be good parents, but this wasn’t the right time. I wanted to finish college.
This wasn’t my first pregnancy. My fiancé and I had gotten pregnant previously when I was 21 years old. I had private insurance through my job, but when I went to have the abortion the insurance wouldn’t cover it. The deductible was three times the cost of the abortion itself. I was forced to pay out of pocket, and it broke me. I was in school, trying to establish being an adult. I was trying to get my life together. It was a huge barrier, and it put me back a lot.
At that time, I really didn’t have the support I needed, so I told my mother that I didn’t want to continue the pregnancy. Though I felt like, “I got this,” I was still very nervous. The protesters terrified me, and though I was with my mom, I didn’t know if I could safely walk past them into Preterm, a Cleveland independent abortion provider. But once I walked inside, I felt at ease. The staff at Preterm reminded me that abortion is common and normal. They put me at ease, and I had my mom and kids’ father by my side. I felt safe.
Finding out I was pregnant in jail was so different than the first time. I was alone. I was unsupported. Everything was so cold. This was nothing that I wanted.
I was immediately sent to the Pregnancy Pod, a separate area where all pregnant women were kept. There were so many of us. It was over capacity. I couldn’t believe the things I was seeing as soon as I got in there. There were women who were six months pregnant sleeping on the outside of cells where we eat our lunches and meals because there was no space. There were women who were nine months pregnant who had to climb up cement walls to get to their bed on the top bunk, lined only with a thin mattress. We had to sleep on mattresses so thin you could feel the coils poking your back and belly as you slept. It was uncomfortable and lonely. Going to bed at night, it was just me and my baby.
When you’re pregnant, you often have to pee. A lot. But we didn’t have basic access to use the toilet when we needed it. In the Pregnancy Pod, the bathroom was on the outside of the cell. There were 50 women in a pod that holds 30. In the middle of the night, we’d all have to go to the bathroom, and they’d make us hold it. Sometimes for an hour. Sometimes longer. It was all a shock to me.
I didn’t get to go for my first intake physical for my prenatal exam until a week or two after I’d been in jail. So, I missed two weeks of medication and vitamins that would keep me healthy during my pregnancy. Like my first pregnancy, I didn’t think I was ready to become a parent. So when I went in, I asked for an abortion, and they said, “That’s not an option while you’re here.” I couldn’t believe it. “You’re only here 60 days,” they told me, “and if that’s what you want, you can get it when you get out.” I was floored. That’s when I realized I was going to become a parent. The decision was already made for me.
At the time, I didn’t know how far along I was because I wasn’t given an ultrasound. The jail medical staff claimed that an ultrasound appointment would take them a long time to schedule, and then we’d have to to leave the jail to go to the hospital to have the ultrasound. So they didn’t give them to us. Because of cost and logistics, we only got one ultrasound. Some women complained about not being able to see their babies until an ultrasound just before they gave birth. Most incarcerated people are on Medicaid, which means we didn’t receive much of the care we needed. It was clear that those of us without insurance or on Medicaid were treated with the least amount of empathy or compassion.
The care I received while in jail was awful. The staff was mean and uncaring. I saw a couple of girls deliver in the Pregnancy Pod because no one came to help in time. Sometimes I thought I was over analyzing it and thought, “they’re just doing their job,” but ever since I left, I know that’s not right. We are human beings. We were pregnant. We deserved to have medical care; a bathroom to use; and safe, comfortable beds to sleep in.
We deserved nutritious meals, not just for us, but for our growing babies. But the meals themselves were terrible, so I only ate when I had to. In the Pregnancy Pod, we’re required by law to have a snack in between meals. But the snacks were minimal and horrible. We would have to share a banana and a carton of milk with our cellmates. It was so little food that sometimes we missed out on snacks. Sometimes we couldn’t get water or, if we could, it would take hours. We shouldn’t get poor health care just because we’re incarcerated. We should be able to get water. That shouldn’t be controversial.
I was in jail for 60 days. Two months. Two long months. When I got out I was around 20 weeks, or five months, pregnant, so I guess I was around 9-12 weeks when I went in. But like I said, I didn’t really know because we couldn’t have an ultrasound or other important prenatal care. If that had happened now, I wouldn’t be able to get an abortion after leaving jail because Ohio now bans abortion at 20 weeks. So, I wonder what happens to the women who are asking for abortions right now, thinking they might be able to get one when they get out, only to find that their constitutional right has been stolen from them.
I wanted the second abortion for the same reason I wanted the first one. It wasn’t a tragic situation for me because I had support. I knew that option was available. I’d already had one. The first time, the overall procedure was a breeze. I felt like if it’s available, I should have access to it. But being incarcerated stopped me and changed the path of my life.
I did my sentence. It was the worst time of my life. When I was released, I decided to keep the baby. But it was almost like I was forced. My life was controlled by someone else. That’s why it’s important for me to speak out and be in the movement now. We shouldn’t be treated different because of who we are and whether we’re in jail or not. When I got out, I got back in school, but things were harder than ever because I had a child. Being forced into becoming a parent makes me want to be an even stronger supportive mother and advocate for abortion access — it makes me want to share my story. I love my son. I will continue to fight for his future, and I will support him and his friends through their reproductive decisions. I want young people to see someone who looks like them and has gone through the same thing.
When my son was four months old, my fiancé and I got pregnant again. I had just gone back to work 33 days after having my son, and I was in school. I had another abortion because we had a four-month-old, and things were tough. I was working, going to school full time, and caring for my family. We decided to focus on being responsible but on our own terms. I got an IUD, but it went badly. I bled a lot. Now we’re expecting again with little Serenity coming in April, and we’re planning to get married. I’m happy, and it took a lot to get here.
Now I’m 24. I have a degree. I am a parent. I am an advocate. And I am happy.
I want to make a difference. I feel like I am raising my family and being an activist in Cleveland with a purpose. I am here to support young women who don’t have access to the things that I am learning. I want to be that example for my community and my family. I am speaking out because I want everyone to know everything I’ve been through and what other women are still dealing with. People feel lonely in prison because they don’t have someone to support them. And now that I’ve been through that and I’m on the outside, I want to use my voice to make a change.
I recently became an activist. I was in a fellow in the first Patients to Advocates cohort where I learned about abortion, how the laws and policies deny women access to care, and how to organize in my community. Currently, I am a storyteller with We Testify, a leadership program for people who’ve had abortions, through the National Network of Abortion Funds. In We Testify, I’ve met two-dozen other storytellers who are sharing their story to impact others, and I am learning how to talk about my own experiences to make change.
I’ve learned it’s okay to be me. It’s okay to talk about the challenges I’ve experienced. It’s okay to have an abortion. It’s okay to demand compassion. It’s okay to demand my rights and healthcare. I’ve learned it’s important to speak up, even if you think no one listens to you while you’re incarcerated, because someone really is listening.
I hope that those of you who were incarcerated like me share your story. Share resources to make sure the other women who are in our situation don’t have to deal with what we did — so they aren’t denied healthcare, an abortion when they want it, a soft bed to sleep in, or water and nutritious food. Fight to make sure they aren’t incarcerated for simply being poor. Share your story. Make people listen. How can you not believe someone’s actual story? How can they not believe you when you say, “This happened to me”? Healthcare access shouldn’t depend on your skin color, income, or how many times you’ve been in prison. At some point we won’t have to have this conversation, but until then, I want a seat at the table to make change.
Thank you for listening.