As Mother’s Day approaches, the conversation should not only be about Hallmark cards and what gift to buy the mothers in your life. While it is extremely important to show honor to our mothers daily (not just on Mother’s Day), we as a society should be focused on supporting mothers too. We are in a country with an extremely high rate of mortality for Black mothers — 3 to 4 times that of white mothers. Serena Williams has been public about her near death experience after giving birth; the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, chose to have a doula present when delivering her baby. If high profile Black women are having concerns in the delivery room — let’s think about how much more dire this can be if a mother is giving birth behind bars.
The conversation has been elevated to include mothers who are in custody. Movements like #FreeBlackMamas and The Dignity Act illustrate the problems that face mothers behind bars. The Dignity Act was included as part of federal criminal justice reform bill, which just recently passed. It requires that women are not shackled while they give birth, receive menstrual care items, and searched by same-sex guards when at all possible. Sadly, states have been slower to pass these types of reforms.
A version of the Dignity Act passed in the Florida Legislature this month. However, this bill would not have helped Tammy Jackson — who was left to give birth alone in her jail cell for six hours in Broward County. Despite her repeated pleas to the guards, she was not provided medical attention. This is part of the greater problem where certain mothers are not valued. The fact that someone is incarcerated or in custody does not diminish their humanity. People who are in custody are the responsibility of the Department of Corrections; as such, it is the guard’s responsibility to ensure that those in their care receive the help that they need.
Additionally, medical professionals need to have regular implicit bias training. The assumption that Black women are stronger, therefore perceived to be less in need of medical attention, is a deadly fallacy that costs mothers their lives. This is something that is a relatively easy fix to the high mortality rates.
As for the guards who left Tammy Jackson to give birth alone in her cell without medical attention, it is my hope that her pain becomes a teaching moment in the road to criminal justice reform. No one should be judged by a mistake they may have made. 83% of people who go into custody come out – the trauma that was caused by this experience lasts, leaving repercussions on not only the person who was incarcerated, but begins a ripple effect from the immediate family to society as a whole.
As I do every Mother’s Day, I must wish my own mother a happy Mother’s Day in heaven. As I learn more about the medical traumas that mothers, especially Black mothers face, I marvel at her strength and appreciate her even more.