Doula training offers an innovative way to support formerly incarcerated women

Employment and income are critical for women leaving jail, but there aren’t nearly enough programs targeting their needs. A paper by Monica McLemore and Zakeya Warner Hand of UCSF looks at doula training as an innovative way to both help formerly incarcerated women find meaningful employment and address cultural gaps in pregnancy care in underserved communities.

There are several reasons why the researchers chose doula training as a new avenue of employment for formerly incarcerated women. Doulas play a unique role in the birthing process, providing emotional, physical and informational support. Research shows that women who seek doula services are less likely to be judgmental of formerly incarcerated women. Doula work is also ideal because many of these women are mothers and need a job that can be flexible to accommodate their childcare needs.

The East Bay Community Birth Support Project, a joint effort by Birth Justice Project and Black Women Birthing Justice in partnership with UCSF, developed a doula training program. The no-cost, community-based program was targeted to women of color and open to women 18 and over who were low-income or formerly incarcerated. The program produced 16 doulas of color, none of whom were rearrested during the yearlong training program, and to date no participants in the program have returned to jail. The program provided a gateway to health professions and also increased the number of well-trained women of color who could provide care to communities who need it.

Women did identify some barriers to working in interviews about their experience with the doula program. Some struggled with negotiating their compensation and determining the amount to ask for. Some women also had difficulty asking for money for work that was so closely tied to their identity as nurturers. Navigating the different care environments, from hospitals to birthing centers, also proved challenging.

McLemore and Hand offer recommendations for key components to guide expansion of doula training for formerly incarcerated women of color:

  • No-cost education and additional support, including scholarships and fellowships;
  • Acknowledgment and compensation as essential members of the healthcare team working with pregnant women;
  • Mentorship from other doulas;
  • Access to office space, computers and the internet;
  • Consideration of collective and cooperative models of work.

Doulas are important members of the healthcare workforce who can help improve birthing outcomes, and training formerly incarcerated women offers an innovative way to help them achieve stable and meaningful employment.