“Tutwiler” Offers Rare Look at Pregnancy in Prison

The Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, located in Wetumpka, Alabama, has been long considered one of the worst women’s prisons in the country. 

The namesake behind the prison was Julia S. Tutwiler, known as the “angel of the prisons” for her advocacy on reforms of the Alabama penal system in the early 1900s.

Today, the status of women in Tutwiler might make Julia turn in her grave.

  • In 2003, its overcrowded conditions were found to be so severe they violated the Constitution;
  • its pattern of “frequent and severe officer-on-inmate sexual violence” prompted the Equal Justice Initiative to file a formal complaint with the Justice Department in 2012; and
  • in May 2013, Mother Jones ranked Tutwiler as one of the ten worst prisons in the U.S.

Today, a new documentary—aptly named Tutwiler—tells the story of pregnant women incarcerated within the prison’s walls.

A joint product of the Marshall Project and Frontline (PBS), the documentary was directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon and produced by Alysia Santo. 

The 34-minute film focuses on 36-year-old Misty Cook, incarcerated while pregnant with her second son. It sheds light on the process up to her birth, as she is prepared for the arduous birthing process and transferred to the hospital, as well as her experience upon returning to the prison. 

Misty Cook, as she is transported to the hospital to give birth. (Elaine McMillion Sheldon / PBS)

Tutwiler displays these words across the screen:

“Women are the fastest growing population behind bars in the U.S.”

And thousands of them are pregnant.

The only women’s prison in Alabama, Tutwiler averages 45-50 pregnant women within its walls each year.

Typically, women are only allowed 24 hours with their newborns after birth, before they return to prison. This heartbreakingly short time is emotionally crippling to new mothers.

Simply put, 24 hours to bond with a baby is not enough—and these women have felt this painful reality many times, culminating in disconnection and emotional turmoil.

As they return to their lives behind bars, they often long for updates about their children. One woman laments that she does not want to give birth because she wants to still be able to feel him (her son) and have him with her. 

Shown in emotional shots, the women of Tutwiler bond and support each other through the difficult birth process and beyond. They show each other pictures of their children, remarking on what they know—and how little they don’t, as they anticipate updates about their children’s conditions and lives.


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Alabama Prison Birth Project

The documentary also follows the prison’s implementation of the Alabama Prison Birth Project. Tutwiler is the only prison in the southeast that utilizes this program, which provides detailed information and classes to incarcerated expecting mothers like how to relax during contractions, hold their babies, pump breast milk and ultimately mother from afar.

The program assigns pregnant inmates to a doula if they desire. This doula becomes only individual in the hospital with a personal relationship to the woman during her birthing process. 

Participants in the doula program watch TV news in their dorm at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. (Elaine McMillion Sheldon / PBS)

(However, due to COVID-19, doulas have been currently prohibited from visiting prisons to assist pregnant and postpartum women.)

As women are educated, assigned doulas and encouraged to pump and send their breast milk to their children from prison, this project changes the lives of the women and their newborns through cultivating connections. 

The Alabama Prison Birth Project has become a beacon of hope for women in Tutwiler, helping many move on from their past mistakes in order to become successful mothers.  The documentary discusses the possibility of implementing further programming in new prisons so that mothers may be able to spend more time with their newborns after birth. This idea could cultivate the mother-child relationship from an early age, instead of estranging children from their mothers directly after birth. 

Tutwiler Today Still a “Toxic Sexualized Environment”

Alysia Santo, in her essay detailing her reporting experience, notes, “Over the course of numerous trips to Tutwiler, Elaine [McMillion Sheldon] and I saw deep problems, but also a sincere desire to make the place more humane.”

Still, today, Tutwiler is described as a “toxic sexualized environment.” Sexual abuse has run rampant at Tutwiler, and although female guards have been hired and cameras installed, the prison still remains overcrowded and understaffed.

The availability of drugs within the confines of the prison furthers the idea that the prison does not cultivate rehabilitation—in more than one way. 

Though the prison attempts to put women through drug rehabilitation classes, some prisoners remark that throwing addicts behind bars is anything but productive. In a prison where drug use is prevalent, even described in the documentary as “in your face,” women face the challenges of addiction and rehabilitation while serving time, and are not always backed by the strongest support systems.

The women in the documentary remark on the fact that they knew they made mistakes to end up in prison, and have accepted their mistakes, but want to change their lives for the better, to be there for their children.

Yet, as many of these women are addicts and nervously anticipate returning to normal life, they worry about being a good mother and how to change the behavior that caused them to be incarcerated. It is a helpless feeling, as women try and break cycles that have been prevalent in their lives from the beginning. (As stated in the beginning of the documentary, at one point in Tutwiler, there were three generations of women from the same family within its confines.)

The final shot of the documentary is tear-invoking, solidifying how women support each other in times of heartbreak and despair. The film calls for a much-needed reform to the prison systems, especially for pregnant women.

The beginnings of this positive change glimmer within Tutwiler prison—yet there are still barriers as thick as prison bars to consider. Being ripped away from one’s newborn may make even the strongest woman break.

A broadcast of the documentary will premiere on May 19 at 8p.m. ET on the America Reframed on WORLD Channel.

Watch the whole thing here:


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About

Audrey Gibbs is a junior at Sewanee: The University of the South, majoring in English with minors in Shakespeare studies and politics. She hopes to continue her education through law or journalism school. In her free time, she is a singer/songwriter and an actress.