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Nurse steps up for incarcerated pregnant women

The Chronicle Herald with Martha Paynter 02 June 2018

In her north-end Halifax home, Martha Paynter’s laptop sits open on the dining room table, which also serves as a makeshift work desk. Her three-year-old daughter plays quietly nearby. Having her child close to her is natural, the way she believes it should be, not just for herself, but for all women.

But Paynter is keenly aware that what is natural, isn’t possible for some women. Women who are incarcerated don’t have a choice. They are separated from their children. After becoming a mother and learning that in the same city she calls home there were women in corrections facilities, pregnant and alone, unable to see their children, Paynter couldn’t sit quietly and do nothing. It was unjust in her eyes. She had to act.

“Imprisonment of women is a huge violation of human rights,” she said in a recent interview at her home. “They have their children taken from them. It’s brutality.”

Paynter is a nurse and an activist. She sees it as her responsibility to use her education and privilege to help those less fortunate, and to fight for change.

“I have a very privileged life,” she said. “I have to use this (privilege) wisely and productively.”

Paynter, who is pursuing her PhD in nursing at Dalhousie University, doesn’t mince her words. She speaks pointedly. Her desire to give back to her community, and to help the incarcerated women she sees suffering, is so strong it is palpable.

“The least we can do is use the tools we have as nurses to address the harm done to these women,” she said.

For her work, Paynter was one of five students at Dalhousie to receive the university’s prestigious student leadership honour, the Board of Governors Award, in March. Having recently completed her first year of her PhD program, Paynter will spend the next few years trying to better understand pre-natal and post-partum health outcomes of women and transgender people incarcerated in Canada. It is an interest that grew out of her volunteer work.

In 2012, she founded Women’s Wellness Within, a Halifax-based non-profit organization that serves criminalized women and supports and advocates for pregnant women in jail during their perinatal period through educational workshops and doula services. In 2014, they provided doula services to their first woman in a corrections facility. Since then, they have served about 30 women.

“Compassion is the first step to providing adequate care,” she said.

“Nothing separates us except our privilege,” she added. “There is no goodness or badness.”

Dedicated and driven, Paynter now dedicates about 15 hours a week to the organization that became incorporated as a non-profit in 2017.

“Everyone involved is a volunteer in the organization,” she said.

Working alongside formerly incarcerated women, doulas, health-care providers, lawyers, students and researchers, Women’s Wellness Within provides support to women at the Nova Institution for Women federal prison, the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility provincial jail, the Nova Scotia Youth Facility and those on bail and parole in the community. They work in close partnership with the Chebucto Family Centre, the Elizabeth Fry Society, the IWK Health Centre, and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.

Even just showing up for the women at the corrections facilities is something, said Paynter. The incarcerated women are often far from home, separated from their family, friends, and community at a vulnerable time in their lives.

“They don’t have support people near them,” she said.

Aside from providing one-on-one support, the non-profit runs monthly workshops led by nurses or lawyers, on everything from self-care, sexual health, parenting, and resilience. Outside the corrections facilities, Paynter and others lead seminars for health professionals and students and speak publicly to raise awareness of the rights and reproductive health experiences of criminalized women. At least 90 per cent or more of incarcerated women have endured sexual abuse, she said.

“Most incarcerated women in Canada are mothers,” Paynter writes a recent edition of the Journal of Human Lactation. “Because women are the fastest-growing population in carceral facilities, protecting the rights of incarcerated women to breastfeed their children is increasingly important. There is considerable evidence that incarcerated women in Canada experience poor physical and mental health, isolation, and barriers to care. Incarcerated women and their children could benefit significantly from breastfeeding.’

While she fights to get more prenatal support and more services into Nova Scotia jails, ultimately, the goal is to ensure that pregnant women don’t spend their pregnancies in prison at all.

“We do not believe in the imprisonment of pregnant people,” she said.

Social inequalities, mental illness, addiction, and poverty drive criminalization, she said. Providing additional support for families is a start to addressing the issues women face.

After hearing the story of Julie Bilotta, a woman who gave birth to a son in a jail cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre in 2012, Paynter had a life-changing moment. She felt she had to alter her life and find better ways to help.

“You can’t hear about what Julie went through and not feel that this is not the society I want to be part of,” she said.

“I feel very obliged to bring about change,” she added. “I felt driven to devote myself professionally and through my volunteer work to support criminalized women.”

For Paynter, that meant taking a more hands-on role in health care. After nearly a decade in management roles working for the Department of Health in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, she started on a new path that would eventually see her walk away from her secure job and a pension to return to school.

“I just didn’t feel fulfilled in my work,” she said.

With the birth of her two children (now ages three and six) and as a volunteer doula with the Chebucto Family Centre since 2009, Paynter had closely witnessed nurses in action and their role in the health-care system. She liked what she saw.

“I think the nurses with the IWK are phenomenal,” said Paynter, who now works part-time in the hospital’s family and newborn unit. “I wanted to be part of them.”

When she delved further and read the nursing code of conduct she connected strongly to the ideas of having a duty to care, and a duty to seek justice.

“Nurses have a strong foundation in ethical work,” she said.

In 2017, she graduated from  Dalhousie’s bachelor of science in nursing program and, that same year, began the PhD program, with the goal of bridging the gap between academia and clinical practice.

“Nursing was a way to do all the things I was good at, while also feeling connected to people in my community,” she said.

Advocacy work is nothing new to Paynter. Growing up in Fredericton, she remembers attending countless protests with her family.

“We spent our free time at protests,” she said smiling. “Protesting the Gulf War was what we did for fun.”

Her mother Beth Paynter, a former executive director of Fredericton’s Planned Parenthood, still actively works with homeless people in New Brunswick’s capital. From her father, an engineer and consultant, she witnessed how to integrate volunteer work into daily life in the same way you would a daily vitamin or exercise.

“I have a very human-rights-based approach to nursing,” she said. “I think the foundation of nursing is advocacy.”