By Sandeep Prasad, Action Canada Executive Director
Originally published in the Huffington Post
In 2012, a young mother named Julie Bilotta made headlines across Canada. After nine hours of labor, she gave birth to a baby boy in solitary confinement at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Center where she was held in remand. It wasn’t until a nurse noticed the baby’s foot dangling outside her body that the paramedics were called.
Julie was only allowed to hold her baby on the way to the hospital in the ambulance and was sent back to the detention center — on her own — following the mostly unassisted, high-risk (breech) birth of her near-term baby.
If not for the public outcry and advocacy work of local organizations, she would have only been able to see her baby during 20 minute closed visits while awaiting her trial. Three weeks after giving birth, Julie was released under strict bail conditions and was reunited with her baby, both of them housed at a local resident facility.
Tragically, despite being hospitalized along with the baby for possible birth-related injuries, Julie’s son died one year later due to respiratory issues the mother claims are linked to his premature delivery on a cement floor at the detention center.
While this case garnered national attention and sparked protests, the traumatic experiences of separation and poor health care are commonplace in the context of incarceration. This despite the fact that incarcerated people have a right to health — as recognized in international human rights law and sections 85-87 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which requires Corrections Services Canada to provide essential health care that will contribute to people’s rehabilitation and successful reintegration into the community.
Many factors can greatly impact how individuals exercise and claim their sexual and reproductive rights as well as access quality health services and information. Being incarcerated is certainly one. This is particularly concerning in the context of the targeted profiling, policing and criminalization of marginalized populations in Canada.
The disproportionately high rate of incarceration among racialized and Indigenous populations — because of longstanding systemic racism and other types of discrimination — is furthered by mandatory minimum sentences, which judges are now required to impose on a range of offences.
Longer sentences increase the likelihood of poor health outcomes for those who are incarcerated, especially sexual and reproductive health related outcomes. High incarceration rates also deeply impact communities as a whole; research shows that the impact of incarceration extends beyond those who are themselves incarcerated. Incarcerating mothers is commonly associated with depression, anger, poor school performance and environmental disruptions among their families, especially for their children. We are impacting entire communities spanning generations.
Governments have an international human rights obligation to ensure that the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people are respected and guaranteed.
In recognition of this, on International Human Rights Day on December 10, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights is joining our colleagues at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives to host the Ottawa launch of the Mother-Baby Prison Health Guidelines and provide a space to gather and discuss the rights of incarcerated parents to nurse and bond with their babies. It will be an opportunity to show the realities of women having to give birth in prison and the need to work on sustainable and culturally safe alternatives to criminalization and incarceration.
Krysta Williams from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network summed it up perfectly when she said, “We know that Indigenous young women are incarcerated at much higher rates, yet also face significant amounts of violence, including State violence. This speaks to the fact that while our bodies remain over-criminalized, our rights continue to be under-protected. Every possible effort should be made for pregnant women, mothers and babies to receive care in their community and to find sustainable alternatives to incarceration.”
Meeting the sexual and reproductive health needs of incarcerated people — and particularly racialized individuals in Canada who are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated — requires the implementation of measures such as those recommended in the Mother-Baby Prison Guidelines, as well as seeking real justice by addressing the underlying root causes of discrimination and other social determinants of health.
To learn more about the rights of incarcerated parents to nurse and bond with their babies, join Action Canada, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives on Dec. 9, 2015 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. for the launch of Mother-Baby Prison Health Guidelines.
The event will be held at the Ottawa Birth and Wellness Center, a wheelchair accessible venue. Click here for more information about the event.