Siwatu-Salama Ra, along with with other women in the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan, watched on television the chaos and cruelty of children being ripped from their families at the southern border. Ra, who had recently been separated from her own newborn, remembers, “I had to get up out of my chair and exit the dayroom. I went to my cell and cried.” When she returned to the break room the following day, the television was filled with members of the administration offering a full-throated defense of the separation policy.
“So here he was talking about illegal immigrants, and how they got here illegally, and how, if they didn’t get here illegally, America wouldn’t be doing this,” Ra adds, referring to Donald Trump. “Yet the women who were in the room with me were like, ‘But that happened to me. They did that to me and my children. Is he talking about immigrants, or is he talking about me?’ So there is much similarity between [what happened to us and] what [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] is doing.”
Secretary for Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has used the cases of women like Ra to justify the Trump administration’s cruel policy of separating mothers and children at our southern border. “We do it every day in every part of the country,” she told a congressional committee that demanded answers after the world witnessed the government caging thousands of children. “In the United States,” she said, “we call that law enforcement.”
Nielsen was describing the treatment of Ra and the other women in her unit who were either pregnant or recently separated from their children after giving birth in custody. Although Ra was released from prison on bond two weeks ago as she awaits a hearing on her appeal, she is using her skills as a longtime activist to end the inhumanity she witnessed inside.
Today there are more than 500 children separated from their families by the federal government. To those of us whose communities are criminalized, it is clear that the cruel practice of ripping children, even newborns, from their mothers’ arms is as old as slavery. It is still practiced daily inside prisons and jails and is supported with a straight face and no sense of irony by those who call themselves pro-family and pro-life. Indeed, it is a practice, as Nielsen testified, that happens “every day in every part of the country.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are more than 219,000 women, mostly mothers, in prison in the United States. It has taken years of Black women taking the lead in advocacy to prohibit prisons and jails from shackling women during delivery. Organizations like SisterSong, MomsRising and the Prison Birth Project have had success prohibiting or restricting the use of shackles during labor in most states, but eight states have no laws about a practice that quite literally connects prisons to slavery and endangers the health and lives of vulnerable parents in their most defenseless moments.
One out of every 12 American children—more than 5.7 million kids under age 18—have experienced parental incarceration at some point during their lives (Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, 2016). This separation happens to over 60 percent of the women in prisons, and over 80 percent of women in jails across the country.
On March 1, 2018, 27-year-old Ra started her two-year sentence at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility while six months pregnant. She had been convicted of felonious assault and felony firearm, the latter of which carries a two-year mandatory sentence in Michigan.
She was rightly terrified about giving birth in prison. A few weeks after arriving at the prison, Ra had a medical crisis. She went into labor early when she witnessed a fellow inmate from the pregnant prisoners’ unit return from St. Joseph Mercy maternity ward—her still-swollen legs in shackles—distraught, inconsolable and separated from her newborn.
“I was triggered; this woman I saw every day, who was nine months pregnant, was now no longer pregnant, and she was crying. That’s when it became real for me,” she said.
Ra had an empathy-induced anxiety attack as she realized that the same fate awaited her on her due date in two weeks. That anxiety attack became an asthma attack; then came the contractions. She says that guards ignored her for what felt like hours, but when it became clear to the prison staff that she was in distress, a female guard shackled her ankles in what Ra describes as “short chains.”
It took 30 minutes for another guard to open the prison gate for the transport vehicle that would take Ra to the hospital. She lost feeling in her feet. When she got to the hospital, she says, “the doctor wanted to check my cervix but couldn’t because of the chains on my feet.” Another guard changed the chains from short ones to long ones. Despite the fact that she was a pregnant woman in an emergency room at a hospital, the chains remained until hours later, when she was finally admitted for an infection and given medicine to prevent her from continuing to go into labor.
This is routine practice in Michigan and approximately 27 other states where there is no legislation restricting shackling during hospital visits for all imprisoned people, including those who are pregnant. In Michigan, women are shackled at ankles, arms and belly, up until and directly following what is considered active labor.
But not shackling people in labor has never been enough. Pregnant women should not be in jails and prisons at all. Making these basic, humane arguments for the dignity and health of mothers and children reveals the abiding shame of a country that has never lived up to its most basic ideas about itself.
On May 20, 2018, Ra again went into labor and was rushed to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. She had three armed prison guards and a sergeant in her delivery room. Usually, there are two female guards present when a pregnant woman gives birth, but Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility deemed Ra an additional security risk. When Ra, terrified and in the throes of labor, asked the ranking officer why there were twice as many guards present in the room during her labor, he told her they were “security,” there to protect her and her soon-to-arrive baby boy.
And, possibly, they were there because her story had garnered some media attention: Metro Times, the local weekly, made her its cover story. When gun-rights activist and rapper Killer Mike was a guest on Bill Maher’s weekly HBO talk show, he used her case as an example of how Black gun owners are treated differently from white gun owners. Remarkably, even right-wing pundit Glenn Beck weighed in, writing an article invoking “Stand Your Ground” and arguing that Ra was innocent.
Ra was in debilitating pain, but she managed to protest, telling the guards, who reached for their holsters every time a nurse entered the room, “I don’t feel safe, I feel traumatized.” Finally unshackled but still surrounded by four guards in the birthing room, Ra said aloud, “I don’t think I can do this.” When she’d given birth to her now 3-year-old daughter, her husband, mother and sister were in the delivery room. Sensing how alone she felt, the obstetrician on duty, a Black woman, leaned in close and began coaching her: “You can do this. You are so strong. I know all about you. I’ve read about you and I’m honored to be helping you. Now give birth to your son.”
Before her arrest, Ra worked at Detroit-based East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC). She grew up attending neighborhood meetings and rallies demanding clean air and water, often organized by her mother, Rhonda Anderson, a longtime environmentalist. A few years ago, a good friend of Ra’s was brutally murdered in a story that made Detroit local news. Ra’s husband insisted that she attend gun training classes and buy and carry a licensed handgun.
Last winter, Ra was convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon and felony firearm. According to Ra, in July 2017 she was defending her family from Channell Harvey, who rammed her car into the driver’s side of Ra’s parked car. Ra’s then 2-year-old daughter was playing inside the car, sitting in the driver’s seat. According to Ra, during an argument, Harvey weaponized her car and tried to run over Ra’s mother. Ra pulled out her licensed, unloaded gun and told Harvey to leave. Ra left to pick up her husband from work and then went to the precinct to file a report. Harvey, however, had already made a report, and the Detroit Police Department deemed Ra the aggressor.
After months of failed attempts to get her home, Ra was released on bond pending appeal on November 14, 2018, but she should never have been in prison. She should have been at home with her family, caring for and breastfeeding her baby. Instead, guards denied her requests to breastfeed during her first visit with her week-old son. Humiliated, she asked for a meeting with the deputy warden, Karri Osterhout, and made a formal request that the warden, Shawn Brewer, change the breastfeeding policy to allow all mothers to breastfeed their babies during visits. The warden denied Ra’s request. But in order to deter any further requests or grievances on the issue, he did so via the deputy warden, who sent a message to all the women in the prison through the prison’s in-house communication network, JPay, and the entire staff and Ra’s fellow inmates could read the written denial.
Afraid that the refusal to allow breastfeeding would cause her to spiral into postpartum depression, Ra decided to organize her supporters and friends to create baby shower wish lists online for the women in her unit. “I got a sheet of paper and asked women to write their names, numbers and addresses and what they’d like for their babies. For a moment we felt like real moms,” says Ra, who notes that she sometimes feels guilty about having such a high-profile case. “Why is it that I get this attention? So I try to make sure I do what I can to help other inmates. When they see me on the phone, they’re like, ‘There go Ra, working on something for us.’”
After the warden denied the request to breastfeed her son, Ra’s supporters sent a letter to the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), Heidi Washington. They advocated for policy changes around several maternal-justice issues, including “safe and secure settings and protocols for breastfeeding for lactating mothers who desire to feed their infants and for pumping and storage of breast milk for these infants.” Washington replied that while the MDOC has begun changing other policies concerning pregnant and postpartum women, including “an expanded doula program … restrictions on the use of restraints … and allowing the prisoner, infant, and caregiver a shared visit in the hospital … the Department will not be changing its policies related to breastfeeding and the pumping and storage of milk at this time.” Washington cited “logistical and liability concerns” and noted that she met with legislators to inform them that the policy would not change until statutory protections are put in place for the MDOC and its employees.
Ra and her supporters are continuing to pursue MDOC policy changes, and meeting with Michigan legislators to codify something as basic, healthy and maternal as breastfeeding. With Ra home on bond, her lawyers are continuing her appeal process to keep her free. Her son turned 6 months old days after her release. As she left the prison with a box of letters in her hand, she spoke passionately about her commitment to continue working with and for the women she met inside.
“As an organizer, as someone who’s been an organizer for so many years, I couldn’t not organize. These were women who were organizing on so many things. On a legislation level, they were having letter-writing campaigns; they had their own newsletter. Changing mandatory sentencing, changing the hospice program, where they had dying inmates dying alone. So you had women that were working on medical pardons, medical commutations. They are reforming the entire place. Women who were there for 10 years, 20 years, for life, and they said, ‘We deserve better.’ And they did the work,” she said.
While her work for environmental justice is still important to her, Ra says that she’s committed to ending the inhumanity and injustice that has made women the fastest-growing group of people incarcerated in the United States.
“I was inspired by them. Being in spaces like that, I actually forgot that I was in prison,” she says. “I felt like I was at home with my community, and I was. I was with these intelligent women, beautiful women, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters. You had some women in there who were in there with their mothers, organizing together. And I’d never seen anything like it. I want to be like them.”