The Virginia Prison Birth Project Brings Support to Pregnant People Behind Bars 

by Laura Drummond

Sara Zia, 42, is doing life-changing work through the Virginia Prison Birth Project, a volunteer organization she started envisioning in Charlottesville in 2017. A self-described “doulavangelist,” she felt called to offer her services as a prenatal yoga instructor and birth doula at a nearby maximum-security state prison. “I immediately feel like something sacred is happening when I’m in the prison,” says Zia. “It is a gift to be able to come into this place with a compassionate spirit, and to meet these people.”

It required two years of patience, diligence, and collaboration with all levels of the Virginia Department of Corrections to establish the program. “It takes champions on the inside to do things like this,” Zia says. She also consulted with similar programs across the country, although there are only five others in existence. The first doula-supported incarcerated birth in Virginia took place in 2019, and it’s an indication of the program’s success that Zia has now lost track of the number she has attended since then. 

The program, called Parenting from Within, is about much more than attending births. It provides gender-sensitive, trauma-informed perinatal education, prenatal yoga, postpartum care, and lactation support. Zia is the birthing person’s advocate throughout the experience, telling them at their first meeting, “I don’t work for the hospital. I don’t work for the prison. I work for you.” 

Perhaps the most important aspect of Zia’s support comes on the day of hospital discharge. Just two days—if that—after the baby’s birth, the birthing person returns to prison, while their baby goes home with a family member or friend. 

One of her clients, Abigail (last name withheld), gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but then had to serve two remaining months of her sentence for a drug charge and parole violation. Abigail’s mother, Kimberley, took her newborn grandson home from the hospital. “It was so heartbreaking to hear Abigail wailing as I was leaving with the baby,” she recalls through tears. “Sara was so compassionate, so caring, so genuine in her support of Abigail. I don’t know that I could have left with the baby without knowing she was there to comfort her.” 

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