Giving Birth in Prison: One Woman’s Story

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Natasha Smith, 37, plays with her children at her grandfather’s home in Huntington Beach. A unique program allowed Smith to live with her two youngest children while she served a four-year prison sentence. (Susan Valot/KQED)

Editor’s Note: In the past three years, more than 250 California inmates gave birth. Natasha Smith had her youngest daughter, Lydia, while at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. The mother of four was serving time for drug possession and grand theft. This month, as part of our ongoing health series, Vital Signs, we’re bringing you personal stories of health care behind bars. Smith talks about reuniting with her baby — seven years ago — in a program that lets mothers serve their time outside of prison. There were once several such programs in the state. Now, only one Southern California facility remains. Reporter: Susan Valot

By Natasha Smith

I had a normal delivery, a vaginal delivery, so I got 48 hours. And then at the end of the 48 hours, I had to either arrange for someone to come pick up my child or she would go into the [foster care] system. So, I actually had Lydia’s father’s mother come and pick up the baby. And I didn’t really know her. It was very emotional handing over your baby to somebody you never even met.

You just kind of shut yourself down because it’s too hard to deal with: “Where’s my baby?” You just had a baby and your breasts are leaking. I mean, you’re lactating and everything else but there’s no baby.

You know, I cried for about a day, and then after that I had to go on about my business like I never had her because it was too much for me.

When I was [in prison], there was no talking. There was nobody saying, “Hey, how are you doing? Do you need therapy? Do you need counseling?

Births in California prisons have declined alongside the total prison population: In 2011, 188 inmates gave birth. That number dropped to 45 in 2013.

As of February, roughly 6,000 women were incarcerated in California prisons, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

There needs to be more people teaching you how to cope. How are you going to cope when they come and take your baby away? Because a lot of the women in there, they end up turning to drugs in prison. And drugs are readily available in prison.

I found out about the Community Prisoner Mother Program on the day I was received into prison. They had a poster and I read it, and I thought: Oh, my gosh. That’s too good to be true.

The second you’re received into the program you’re un-handcuffed and you’re free. You’re inside a community-based program. There are no wire fences. There are no chains.

When I first got there [when Lydia was 5 months old], I had a crib and two twin beds, for my son, William and I. But at first it was very hard because when I got her back I’m looking at this child and I’m going, who is this? I know I had a baby, and I know this is the baby. But it’s like, oh, that’s a cute baby. And you’re like wait, that’s my baby.

I was able to complete a paralegal class while I was there. And substance abuse classes. I just had my 8th birthday of being sober.

You know, every morning when I got to wake up and see my children, it gave me the strength to keep going and make a better life for me and my children.

Listen to Smith’s story:

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