Doula services considered for incarcerated women, juvenile offenders

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony March 22 on a bill that would create a pilot program to offer doula services for pregnant incarcerated individuals and juvenile offenders.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh
Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh

A doula is a trained professional labor assistant who provides educational, physical and emotional support to individuals during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum for up to one year.

LB581, introduced by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, would establish the program to provide access to doula services during pregnancy and postpartum care at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women and the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center.

Under the bill, a qualified pregnant person would have access to doula services of their choice throughout pregnancy, labor and delivery and the postpartum period. A doula would not be required to have visited the inmate previously and a doula could not be denied eligibility on the basis of a prior criminal conviction or involvement with the criminal justice system.

Cavanaugh said that women in correctional rehabilitation systems are at a higher risk for stress-related complications and have less access to prenatal care than women outside of the system. Having a doula present could reduce these risks, she said, and provide for better birth outcomes.

“Women in the Nebraska correctional system or the YRTC facility should have access to the support and a healthy start for their infants,” Cavanaugh said.

Kelsey Arends, representing Nebraska Appleseed, spoke in support of the bill. The U.S. maternal mortality rate has worsened consistently for many years, she said, and the U.S. has a particularly high maternal mortality rate for Black individuals.

“Evidence has shown that doulas reduce the need for medical interventions, like cesarean delivery, which is riskier for pregnant people and babies,” Arends said. “Additionally, doula care also has the potential to reduce health care spending overall.”

Scout Richters, speaking on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska, also testified in favor. Doulas provide individualized care to incarcerated people, offer ways to reduce stress and promote a healthy pregnancy, she said.

“This is particularly important for Nebraskans who are incarcerated, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color … who face maternal mortality rates nearly four times greater than their counterparts,” Richters said.

Nyomi Thompson, speaking on behalf of I Be Black Girl — an organization that advocates for Black women — also testified in support of LB581. Incarcerated pregnant individuals are one of the most overlooked populations in the U.S, Thompson said, and many of them already have mental health issues, chronic conditions and are at higher risk for maternal mortality.

In opposition to the bill was Diane Sabatka-Rine, interim director of the state Department of Correctional Services. LB581 poses a security risk for staff, she said, because it excludes consideration of prior convictions for doula eligibility and would circumvent the department’s oversight of doulas authorized to provide service to pregnant inmates.

“Furthermore, to implement this bill, [the department] would need to notify the doula when prenatal visits or a cesarean section is scheduled,” Sabatka-Rine said. “Providing people outside of the department with advanced notice of scheduled appointment times creates a significant security risk for transporting inmates outside.”

Sara Morgan testified in opposition to the bill on behalf of the state Department of Health and Human Services. The lack of a doula credential in Nebraska is a public safety concern, she said, as there are no specific state training requirements to standardize a doula’s education.

Additionally, Morgan said, the bill would allow an individual with a prior criminal conviction or who is on supervised release to become a doula, which would violate current practices.

“[The current] standard prohibits the hiring or promotion of any individual who may have been convicted of or engaged in sexual abuse in prison, jail, lockup, a community confinement facility, a juvenile facility or other institution,” she said.

The committee took no immediate action on LB581.

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