Competency 10: Interdisciplinary and Interprofessional Team Building & Competency 4: Critical Thinking
Morgan Mulhern (she/her/hers) is a second-year Master of Public Health (MPH) Candidate in Health and Social Behavior at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Mulhern will be graduating from Chan this May with a concentration in Maternal and Child Health as a C.V. Starr Scholarship Recipient. Mulhern’s passion and engagement in public health is deeply rooted in her identity as a Cuban American woman. She served as a Community Health worker for families on Medical Assistance and adults experiencing homelessness in Minnesota. Her four years of experience in community and government settings inspired her to pursue her MPH in an effort to advocate for structural solutions to structural problems.
While pursuing her MPH, Mulhern serves as a Project Manager for Minnesota Public Health Association’s Racial Equity and Advocacy Initiative. She also served as a Teaching Assistant at Harvard T.H. Chan is a Research Fellow as part of Chan’s MCH Leadership Lab–a competitive fellowship opportunity open to students pursuing the interdisciplinary MCH concentration.
Mulhern started as a Leadership Lab Research Fellow in the Spring of 2021 for an ongoing mixed-methods study, Birth Beyond Bars. Her research has focused on child development and family well-being in the context of mass incarceration. The purpose of the study is to investigate the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children born to incarcerated mothers from birth to 2 years and to better understand the challenges and barriers to family unity in this population.
Background: The Criminal Punishment System and its Impact on Incarcerated Pregnant People
Mass incarceration profoundly impacts pregnant and postpartum people. Although women make up a smaller fraction of all incarcerated people, women’s state prison populations have increased 834% in the span of forty years since 1978 (Sawyer, 2018). We know that nearly 62% of women in state and federal prisons are mothers of minor children (Glaze & Maruschak, 2010). There are distinct ways in which jails and prisons fail women and their families.
Despite outdated and scant data, it has been determined that over 4% of women that are incarcerated in state prison facilities are pregnant at the time of their incarceration. It can be estimated that 1,000 infants are born to women incarcerated in state prisons every year (Sufrin et al., 2019). In most states, women who give birth in custody are separated from their infants soon after delivery. Caregivers chosen by the incarcerated mother, or occasionally through the child protection system, care for these infants while their mother serves the remainder of her sentence. As a public health professional, Mulhern has great concern not only for the reproductive health of the incarcerated birthing person, but also for the physical and emotional development of their infants and young children.
Competency 10: Interdisciplinary & Interprofessional Team Building
In this context, Morgan joined the Birth Beyond Bars team led by Bethany Kotlar, a Ph.D. Student at Harvard T.H. Chan and Founder of Motherhood Beyond Bars–a non-profit partner based in Georgia that provides support for infants born to incarcerated pregnant people and works to reunify families. Morgan largely monitored data collected by MBB partners, implemented survey instrument changes, and generated reports from data collection.
It has been entirely refreshing and comforting for Mulhern to be part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers from an array of institutions and lived experiences that center the well-being of pregnant people, their infants, and their families first and foremost. It is their goal that this study will contribute to a working body of evidence to better understand caregiving arrangements of infants born to incarcerated pregnant people and how caregivers co-parent during incarceration and upon the parent’s release.
Amy Ard (Executive Director), Vanessa Garrett (Reentry and Reunification Program Manager), and Bethany Kotlar (Founder) of Motherhood Beyond Bars continue to inspire Morgan to advocate for a world in which pregnancy and birth is a time of transformation, not trauma. And, a world in which every birthing person has access to quality care and compassionate childbirth support. Morgan truly cannot adequately express in words my gratitude and respect for all members of our interdisciplinary and interprofessional research team.
- Sufrin, C., Beal, L., Clarke, J., Jones, R., & Mosher, W. D. (2019). Pregnancy outcomes in US prisons, 2016–2017. American journal of public health, 109(5), 799-805.
- Glaze LE, Maruschak L. Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics; 2010.
- Sawyer, W. (2018). The Gender Divide: Tracking Women’s State Prison Growth. Retrieved from: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/women_overtime.html