Birth and Motherhood in Prison: An Interview with Veronica Martinez at Folsom Women's Prison

May 9, 2014

Veronica Martinez is a mother in prison. While she was in the county jail awaiting trial she gave birth to her daughter Amaya Martinez. While the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports 4.9% of women are pregnant at the time of their arrest, the Prison Birth Project, an advocacy organization, estimates 25% of all women arrested are pregnant at the time of their arrest or gave birth in the previous year and 85% of all women in prison are mothers.

Throughout the country, 18 states have passed legislation regarding women who are pregnant and in prison and two states are awaiting the governor’s signature on bills, that would among other things, prohibit restraining a woman in labor, provide educational materials about pregnancy, and give access to mental health care.

Recently, I joined a group of children visiting their mothers incarcerated at the Folsom Women’s Facility (prison) in northern California for a pre-Mother’s Day “Get on the Bus” event. The children had traveled from throughout California to visit their mothers. Of the 350 women held at the FWF, 30 had been cleared to join their children for a few hours of time on the prison yard.

While children and their mothers played basketball and table tennis, and with a stereo blaring pop music, I asked Veronica Martinez, one of the mother’s serving time, about the birth of her daughter while she was being held at the Alameda County Jail awaiting trial. Martinez, a slight women with straight dark hair and large brown eyes, describes being shackled to the hospital bed after giving birth, and the moment her daughter was taken away, three days later.

Here is her story, below the slideshow.

VERONICA MARTINEZ: I’ve been in Folsom for a year now.

MULLANE: What’s it like to have your child here today?

MARTINEZ: I’m very excited. I’m happy to have this time with her and the rest of my family as well. It’s something we look forward to every year.

MULLANE: You had your child while you were incarcerated?

MARTINEZ: Yes, I did.

MULLANE:  Can you describe what it was like to be pregnant and have a child while you were incarcerated?

MARTINEZ: It was very hard. It was a difficult period to have to go through, my entire pregnancy and being incarcerated. I didn’t get the support I needed during that time and at times it was pretty lonely, especially after I had her and I felt like it was two of us. It wasn’t an easy experience. It was a very hard experience especially after having to let her go. But luckily she’s with my family and Child Protective Services didn’t get involved or anything like that so I was very fortunate in that aspect.

MULLANE: Can you describe the birth and how long you were able to be with your daughter?

MARTINEZ: I was given an emergency C-Section. I actually was going through my preliminary hearing when my water bag actually broke so I didn’t know all my amniotic fluid was actually out, so when they did figure it out, I was due to go back in court the following day but instead they took me to the hospital. I had an emergency C-Section. She was healthy, thank God. Because of the C-Section I was able to stay in the hospital and so I had three days with her before I had to go back to the county jail. My sister came to get her.

MULLANE: What was that like, when you had to give your daughter away at three days to your sister?

MARTINEZ: It was heartbreaking. It was a heartbreaking experience. I went through a really deep depression for a while. I dealt with postpartum, but it was, it was not a good place. It was a very, very difficult time for me. But I knew that one day I’d be back in her life.

MULLANE: So when a day like this happens and you get to see your daughter, who is now how old…

MARTINEZ: She’s four.

MULLANE: How often do you get to see her?

MARTINEZ: I get to see her more often now since I’m closer to home. My family’s from the Bay Area and being transferred here to Folsom—that was one of the good parts of coming here, because I’m closer to home, I get to see my daughter maybe once a month or once every two months depending on my family’s schedule. I’ve had like three or fourth month gaps in between, but that’s not too often so I would have to say every other month or so I see her.

MULLANE: What would it mean to have your child in prison with you?

MARTINEZ: I don’t necessarily think it would be a good environment for her. I think it would be a selfish wish on my part because I would want to have her with me all the time, but for her I don’t think it would be the best environment. If they had a mother-infant program it would be a little different. But as far as having her here in prison with me, it’s not a good place for her. It’s not a good place for me, so it’s definitely not a good place for her. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.

MULLANE: Do you think the prison could provide an environment where mothers could be with their children?

MARTINEZ: They have mother-infant programs set up but for like non-violent offenders and low or minimum offenders. I’ve never been in a program like that so I don’t really know what it consists of or the logistics. But if they had something like that, if they turned this into something like that, they would definitely have to do a lot of changes—they would have to retrofit it so it would be a more child friendly place, but it would be great. It would be wonderful. It would be a great thing because it would allow the mothers to bond with their children especially if they have them while they are incarcerated or left them when they were very young.

MULLANE: What would that mean to have that relationship as the child grows up and you do your time?

MARTINEZ: For any mother, for any real mother, that would mean the world to them. It means you have a tighter bond with your child and it creates that bond with the family and it’s something that’s hard to do. Once we get out of here, we now have to try to build that relationship back up with your child. It’s hard because you’re away from them all the time and someone else is out there taking your place right now. They can’t ever fully take your place but emotionally, there’s a lot of work to do when you get out. It would be a less of a transition if we were able to have them with us during this period of our life.

MULLANE: You have how much more time?

MARTINEZ: I only now have 10 months left. I go home next year. It was a seven year term so I have 10 months left. I’m very excited and happy and looking forward to it.

MULLANE: How does your daughter Amaya look to you today? Has she changed? Has she grown?

MARTINEZ: Yes, she has. Every time I see her she seems to grow a little bit more, and her personality seems to grow more too. Her attitude. She’s something else. She’s a big girl and she’s getting bigger every time I see her.

MULLANE: What does she call you?

MARTINEZ: She calls me Mommy-Onnika.

MULLANE: How does that feel? What do you want her to call you?

MARTINEZ:  I want her to call me Mommy. But I haven’t earned that spot yet, so I have to be patient. That’ll change when I go home.

MULLANE: Is that what you dream about?

MARTINEZ: I have a lot of expectations of myself when I come home. One of them is being a good mother and trying to acquire a job and stability for myself and my daughter. Yes, that is something that I dream about. I think about my daughter all the time and what I want to do when I come home with her. Just one more thing to look forward to, my release and being home with my family.

MULLANE: A lot of people have never been apart from their newborn babies for four years. What is that like?

MARTINEZ: It is tough. It’s not an easy experience. It has made me appreciate my family and what I had prior to my incarceration know that all this time. Know that all this time has passed and there’s so much that I have lost in here. Those years I’m not going to be able to get back with my daughter. I can try to rebuild them when I get out. My father just passed away last month so that’s another loss that I’ve taken since I’ve been down. I will never put myself in a situation that will compromise me being apart from my family again. That’s just not going to happen. No way. It’s my first time being in prison. My first time ever coming to jail and I can guarantee this will be my last. Time with our family is just too precious so I savor every moment. Every moment that I have with them.

And it’s given me a newfound appreciation for life and for what we do have in life.

MULLANE: What was it like when you woke up this morning knowing that today they were coming?

MARTINEZ: Well, I’ve pretty much been awake since last night cause I was so anxious, anticipating them coming for this particular day cause I knew it was such a big event, so I didn’t sleep much last night. I’ve been like a kid waiting to get on a ride. I was really, really anxious and excited to see my family and spend time with them. It’s good for them because they get to run around and play and all of that.

MULLANE: Can you tell me why you’re in prison?

MARTINEZ: My initial charges were a lot but in the end I was convicted of first-degree burglary with a firearm.

MULLANE: What did you do? What happened?  Is it a long story?

MARTINEZ: Yes, it is. Yeah. It is sort of crazy. It is a very long story. I don’t think you have enough tape for all of that.

MULLANE: Well, we’ll just leave it at first degree burglary.

MARTINEZ: With a firearm.

MULLANE: Can you remember those choices?

MARTINEZ: Oh yeah. I’ll never forget those choices. Those were choices that changed my life forever.

MULLANE: But you can change your life forever, back. Or forward.

MARTINEZ: I sure can. Oh, I’m very optimistic about that. I know now, more than any other period in my life what’s important and what’s a priority in my life. I never expected this to happen. But now that it did, we are moving forward. For sure, I’m going to be very, very cautious about the choices I make in my life. And every choice has a consequence.

MULLANE: Does it bother you the press is here on this one day?

MARTINEZ: Any time we have anything here that’s positive, that’s great. I’m not bothered talking to you. You seem like a nice lady. But the warden and most of these people here, it’s politics and it’s good for them to be looked at in the press as positive and they really are rehabilitating. So this is part of the rehabilitating.

MULLANE: Where does the real rehabilitation happen?

MARTINEZ: Probably on the streets when I come home and get me a job and have my family support. Because here, it’s really what you make it. But as far as them reinforcing the rehabilitation and all that, I’m not so sure.

MULLANE: Have you watched “Orange is the new Black”?

MARTINEZ: Unfortunately, we don’t have cable here. I’m very out of touch with what is recent and new out there. On TV I see previews but I want to see it and when I get home, what is it on Netflix network. I want to see how true is it to the real deal. I hear they have some characters on there.

MULLANE: Are there characters in here?

MARTINEZ: Oh yea. This is my third prison. I’ve been transferred three times and every prison you go to there’s characters. When it was Valley State Prison for Women, which is where I was at, now that was full of characters.  There was 4,000 inmates in that prison so it was never a dull moment. Every day, it was something else. Full of characters. Full of characters. Now if they had a TV show based on that, the ratings would go through the roof. I can guarantee you that. I was a mess.

“Get on the Bus” is a great program. When I come home, I’m even trying to see what I can do to try to help any way, volunteer any way to help these people. It’s very beneficial. When it comes to the relationship and reunification with families, it’s indispensable program. I’m very happy they have this going on every year for us.

MULLANE: Can I ask you about your birth? There are stories about women being shackled when they give birth. Did you have anything like that?

MARTINEZ: I was shackled to the bed.

MULLANE: In the hospital?

MARTINEZ: In the hospital. They would unshackle me when it was time to use the bathroom. I had my daughter with me, so I mean, I could feed her and hold her whatever, but I was cuffed to the bed.

MULLANE: At your ankles?

MARTINEZ: At my ankle.

MULLANE: Just one shackle?

MARTINEZ: What did that feel like?

MARTINEZ: I mean, I had a C-Section, and I’m trying to change my daughter’s diaper and feed her and they’re just looking at me and there was no help, no support. You don’t have your family there with you. It’s just the police. A male cop sitting in there and they rotate every so many hours. Honestly? I felt like an animal. I felt like they were just watching a dog who’s had birth and take care of yourself.

MULLANE: For three days?

MARTINEZ: For three days.

MULLANE: They had you shackled to the bed for three days?

MARTINEZ: They let me…whenever they got up and went out to the front of the room, they would cuff me. If I had to go to the bathroom, they would cuff me. But for the most part, I was sitting there. I would have my baby. I was unshackled or uncuffed at that point. Any other time I didn’t have my daughter, I would be cuffed to the bed. It was not a comfortable situation to be in. And then, on the ride to the hospital, same thing. I was shackled. I’m going through labor pains and things like that and I’m shackled. So you’re on this court bus and everything is metal. Everything is steel and there’s no comfortable seating. It was…county jail was worse than prison.

Prison, medical is, as far as treatment is concerned, is a little more humane. Alameda County where I’m from and where I caught my case, Santa Rita Jail was one of the worse experiences in my life. I feel and I promise you, I still have PTSD from just that two years I spent in the county jail fighting my case. It was horrible. It was horrible. It was dirty, filthy.

MULLANE: That’s where you gave birth? In the Santa Rita County…

MARTINEZ: They took me from Santa Rita to Highland Hospital in Oakland.

MULLANE: So you were shackled in the van.


MULLANE: You were shackled during the C-Section?

MARTINEZ: During the C-Section I was out. But the police chose to remain in the room while they were giving my C-Section, which I didn’t think that was necessary. I was way out.

MULLANE: Then when you woke up from the C-Section? When you came back conscious were you shackled at that point?


MULLANE: And you remained shackled on and off for the next three days?

MARTINEZ: On and off for the next three days. Right. While I had my daughter in there, it depended on staff too. Some cops were a little bit more cool. They’d be like, they didn’t care. But the doctor did recommend that I walk the tier (floor) so that I could start, after you have your C-Section, you should start actually walking, and they said no. So I had to walk in circles in that little room. Because they wouldn’t let me walk outside of that little room.

MULLANE: So they took your shackle off while you walked in a circle in that little room and then put you back in the bed and shackled you?

MARTINEZ: Uh-huh. Yeah. Just one foot though. Not both feet. Just one. Hooked me to the bed.

MULLANE: And then at the end of the three days, describe how they took your child from you.

MARTINEZ: Well, the nurse came in. The nursery nurse came in and she said, ‘I’m sorry. It’s time to go.’ The Deputy said, ‘OK. It’s time to take you back. You gotta go.’

And I had…she gave me a few minutes with my daughter. I went through my emotions at that point and then the nurse took my daughter and my sister was already there I guess. And I rode back to the county jail and they just kind of leave you in the infirmary to clear you before they take you back. I was there for two to three hours waiting in one of those dirty cells. They stripped me out.

MULLANE: They stripped you?

MARTINEZ: They strip you out every time you go back.

MULLANE: But you just had a baby.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. I had to cough and squat and strip out. Every time that I left that jail, no matter what the case was, I had to get stripped out coming back. I thought that as pretty unbelievable, but they did. And that was it. I stayed in the county jail and then I was there for another year before I got sentenced and then they sent me to Valley State Prison for Women at the time.

MULLANE: How were the women when you went back to the jail who knew you had had a baby?

MARTINEZ: They were very supportive. My bunkie had a collage of babies pasted. She had pasted it with toothpaste, cause that’s what we used. In the county jail, you don’t have tape or glue or any of that so she took toothpaste and she pasted all these pictures of cutout magazines and baby feet and babies and stuff. And she made a little sign, “It’s a Girl” on my bunk. Everybody comes together in stuff like that cause women, we do understand. It’s not an easy thing to just give up your baby like that. So I went through my moments of depression. I went through like a good three, four months—I had fell into a real deep depression. Even today, I’m about 20 pounds lighter than I was when I was at home and I never fully gained my normal weight back. A lot of stress and strain. I was on medication for a little while. Eventually, I got it together and I got more connected spiritually and I winged off the meds. So now, what really carries me through is the strength and faith I have in God. So that’s it. Thank you for coming and for taking the time.