Being a Public Scholar means pursuing scholarship which is in service to the public: exchanging ideas with and being critically engaged in the community outside the university, and allowing research priorities to be led by needs as identified by the community.

Research Description

In 2014, in response to a BC Supreme Court challenge, BC Corrections opened a Mother-Child Unit at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, equipped to house up to nine mother-baby dyads. However, the unit remains empty. There is little information publicly available about BC’s Mother-Child Program (MCP); neither its overall effectiveness, utilization or outcomes, nor its relevance and safety for Indigenous or other racialized individuals. To date there has been no evaluation of any provincial MCP in Canada, nor have institutional barriers to their utilization been studied. While the prison context compounds health inequities for all individuals who are subjected to it, the WHO has identified incarcerated women as a population with particular health needs that require gender-sensitive approaches, specifically as related to their children. Indeed, the reproductive experiences of individuals who are incarcerated in prisons designated for women is a critical social and health equity issue which requires urgent attention, as it carries life-long impacts derived from maternal-infant wellbeing. Most women in prison are of childbearing age; up to 80% having children in their care when admitted to custody, however their reproductive and early parenting needs have received little focus. Indigenous women are overrepresented in carceral settings in Canada. The impacts of colonialism such as trauma, poverty, oppression, racism, and gendered and structural violence further entrench health and social inequities and are associated with high ACEs scores in this population. Indigenous women receive longer sentences and higher security classifications, factors which compound access barriers to, and relationships with their children. Maternal-child connection and separation is an issue particularly relevant for Indigenous women in Canadian prison settings. This study will investigate maternal-child connection and separation in BC’s prisons, with a focus on the utilization and effectiveness of the MCP, through an exploration of policy, practices and individuals’ lived experiences of parenting young children during a period of incarceration. The research questions are: 1) What are individuals’ experiences of parenting young children during a period of incarceration in BC’s correctional facilities designated for women? 2) What policies and discourse determine maternal-child experiences and utilization of the MCP, and how are they operationalized? and 3) How are individuals’ experiences aligned with BC Corrections’ policies and best practices regarding maternal-child connection, and what is needed for program and policy transformation?

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

Being a Public Scholar means pursuing scholarship which is in service to the public: exchanging ideas with and being critically engaged in the community outside the university, and allowing research priorities to be led by needs as identified by the community.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The PSI has created space for a PhD experience to be determined by the needs of the project itself; the outcomes taking whatever shape best serves the needs of the community, rather than a pre-determined outcome that not have meaning for the project in question.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

My interdisciplinary academic background of sociology and health, paired with 17 years of clinical experience in reproductive health care uniquely position me to undertake this research. I have an evidence- and practice-informed understanding of the complexities of reproductive health, as well as a firm understanding of health inequities and the impacts of these on the lives of people who are criminalized and experience incarceration in Canada. My Master’s research (SFU, 2004) explored the treatment of women classified as maximum-security in Canada’s federal prisons. I subsequently performed a small study about women’s perinatal experiences in BC prisons (unpublished). A Registered Midwife since 2006, my clinical practice has focused on providing perinatal care for systemically marginalized families, including youth who are pregnant and parenting, and urban Indigenous families.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

Strong community partnerships are critical to the success of this work. Given that this research will directly impact Indigenous women, and anticipating at least half of the participants may be Indigenous, it will be imperative to establish strong connections with Indigenous partners who are involved in advocacy and support for people who have survived incarceration. Considerable resources will be devoted to developing relationships with advocacy groups such as Elizabeth Fry Society and Unlocking the Gates. Further, establishing an Advisory Circle, comprised of community partners, Indigenous women and gender-diverse people, advocates and Elders, who will guide research activities, will support a culturally safe and trauma-informed research environment, and ensure that the goals, process and outcomes are reflective of community-determined needs. Knowledge mobilization will be co-created and implemented with guidance from the Advisory Circle and in collaboration with research partners (including participants). Outcomes might include an exhibit of photographs collected during the participatory photo-voice interviews in Phase 1, and the development of a photo-essay portion of my dissertation. All outcomes will be geared toward public education, policy development, and program evaluation, both for the public and for incarcerated individuals regarding their reproductive and constitutional rights.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

This innovative, health equity-oriented research will be the first of its kind in BC. It will enhance knowledge about maternal-child connection and separation in BC’s correctional facilities, and its outcomes hold potential to impact change locally and nationally. Moreover, its institutional ethnography design will contribute Canadian-based data to knowledge regarding governance and power relations in prison-health conversations, internationally. The primary anticipated outcome of this study is policy change. The three phases of data gathering and analysis will result in recommendations aimed at a) addressing reproductive health inequities existing in BC’s prisons, and b) improving perinatal experiences and outcomes in prison settings. Findings will also provide evidence to guide the evaluation of the MCP in BC, as well as comparative analyses with programs in other provinces – evidence which is sorely lacking at present. UBC Health defines health as “an attribute of individuals, communities, and societies, and is a fundamental resource for daily living.” Women’s health needs in Canadian prison settings are not well-understood, nor well-researched. Women’s reproductive health, including the health implications of maternal-infant connection and separation in the prison context, are even less understood. Given most individuals who experience incarceration will be released, this prison-based health research will not only draw attention to a critical equity-focused health issue, knowledge gained from it has the potential to a) reduce health inequities and b) promote health equity in our communities and in society at large.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

Through my faculty position (Educational Leadership stream) in Midwifery, I have experience in teaching and curricular scholarship which focuses on health equity and social justice in health care. Pursuing doctoral studies allows me to join a community of health equity-oriented public scholars at the university, contributing to maternal and newborn health research in the area of prison-health.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

Vancouver is my home, and I have been involved in health education at UBC for over a decade. I am grateful to now have the opportunity to bring together my experience in midwifery practice and education with my long-held interests in prison- and reproductive justice, and join a community of learners from across the university.