The Lotus Alliance is a prison doula project in Columbia, South Carolina. The project’s co-directors, Kaylin Smith and Sadie Whitehead, work in coalition with other doulas, medical students, and doctors to provide support in the Camille Graham Correctional Institution throughout pregnancy, labor, and postpartum. Sadie and Kaylin were instrumental in pushing forward an anti-shackling bill in South Carolina, and aspire to expand the reach of their program now that covid related restrictions are beginning to lift.
Listen to our conversation, or read a condensed version of it below.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you tell everyone a little bit about yourself and your pathway to working as a doula?
Sadie: I have been a doula for about nine years. I got my start with Chicago Volunteer Doulas, and at that point we were doing labor support for folks that were under-supported and needed some help. Some of them didn’t speak English, some didn’t have a partner, and then I also got involved with a homeless shelter that occasionally had some folks come in and out who were needing a little extra doula support. As time passed, I really wanted to find a way to use my skills and training to find those people that really needed it. So that’s how I got started with Lotus Alliance.
Kaylin: I’m Kaylin. I have been a doula for the last four and a half years. I started working on my certification as I was becoming a mom, like a lot of people do. I was already working with kids during early childhood education and felt like this was just another extension of that. I also have some experience with family members that were impacted by the justice system. Whenever this opportunity came into my life, it just all clicked together. Now I’m on my way to getting my CPN so that I can be a community midwife and can help support people in other ways as well, but I’m super excited about this project and being able to support the clients that we do.
Kaylin Smith (left) and Sadie Whitehead (right).
On your website, you note that the Lotus Alliance provides “evidence-based education sessions, emotional and physical labor support, postpartum community groups, and legislative advocacy.” Can you tell me more about how these programs work in tandem with each other, and how you delegate this work within your organization?
Sadie: We work with the University training what we call “mini doulas.” They’re medical students who have OB interest, or just have an interest in helping and volunteering. Also the University is contracted with the prison to provide the medical care. Right now they have three different OBs that provide care every Thursday. Before covid, and soon, we’ll be going in with the University doctors and while the patients are waiting for their prenatal care, we’ll do the classes/support groups.
Kaylin: We have prenatal and postpartum support groups. Most of the people there have already given birth, so it doesn’t look a whole lot like a childbirth education class, but more like a support group. Then we do in-person labor support. We have our first post covid birth tomorrow which is really exciting! Our goal is to start a lactation support program once we get back in as well so that whenever they come back to the facility they’ll still be able to provide breastmilk for their babies. That would look like multi-user pumps, and deep freezers, and a courier service to deliver the milk or have an IBCLC on call that can come in on call that can provide support for the pumping moms.
Can we speak about your work to pass an anti-shackling bill in South Carolina. Tell me about what this experience of legislative advocacy was like for you? I think sometimes legislative advocacy feels inaccessible, especially for people who don’t often feel represented by elected officials. What advice would you have for activists in other states doing similar work?
Sadie:.I’m definitely new and green at it, but I think that because we’re going to be the ones going in and actually on the ground level seeing the people that are affected by the legislature it is important for us to understand how to make those changes. Just network and find the people in our community in this state that know and understand how to do it, and learn from them. I think there was a pivotal moment in the hearing that I went to, where the experience of the mini doula who had gone in and saw the woman that was giving birth. She was shackled. And the mini doula, I think was very impacted by that, and wrote a debrief after and sent it to Dr. Cook. Dr. Cook had one of his students read it during the hearing. I really think that that mattered. It made a huge difference in the whole story of that bill.
How does this work help to break cycles of trauma?
Kaylin: In this space where maybe these mothers don’t feel especially like mothers. Letting them know that they’re worthy of somebody else’s time, and they’re worthy of support, and they can have a more peaceful and supportive birthing experience. Increasing that mother baby bond. Hopefully making a difference.
This work is no doubt emotionally taxing, how do you make it personally sustainable for yourselves? What does balance look like in this context?
Kaylin: Taking moments of quiet, and taking moments of silence to myself is really important.. And having a partner in it all. Sadie. I can’t do any of this without her, and I hope she feels the same. Our whole team has just been really instrumental in making all of this happen, and keeping it sustainable, so that nobody feels like they’re doing it all alone.
What are your goals? What do you hope is next for the Lotus Alliance?
Sadie: So many. One huge goal we have right now is that we still haven’t finished applying for our non-profit status so we can pay our doulas and the folks that are going into the prison. One thing that I’ve been really interested in since talking to Maggie at Chicago Volunteer Doulas is a peer doula program. They train anyone that wants to apply to be a doula that is incarcerated in the same facility, so that’s one goal that we’re hoping to do that I’m excited about. What about you Kaylin?
Kaylin: I’m really excited about the lactation program. It just seems like it could be really fulfilling, and a really important bonding moment in all of this. Even being away from their baby, but still being able to provide milk for them. I’m really excited about that portion of it.
Sadie: We also want to take photos. I’m a photographer and I’ve thought it would be so nice to take photos and be able to give the mothers and birthing people pictures of their baby right after [delivery].
Kaylin: Not just cell phone pictures. That’s kind of more the norm of what they’re given now, off of a guard’s phone. A little cell phone print out. Not actual nice memory photos.
Sadie: And then there’s caregiver support, like the people that are caring for the babies that may not have enough, or need support in that area. We’re learning as we go.
Thank you to Kaylin Smith and Sadie Whitehead for sharing their time and insights with the JIWC, and for their work to support pregnant and postpartum people in Columbia, South Carolina through the Lotus Alliance.