Baby steps forward: New law for pregnant inmates

As of July 1, the marginalized lives of pregnant prison inmates are now featured center stage. Minnesota’s new law protecting incarcerated pregnant women went into effect this month.

About 4,200 pregnant women are arrested in Minnesota each year, according to the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota. These women are at a high risk for poor birth outcomes that cause emotional and financial distress.

Research shows that children of inmates are five to six times more likely to end up in jail. To break this cycle, we must address the needs of pregnant, incarcerated women as a component of empowering healthy families.

Minnesota’s new policies restrict the use of restraints on pregnant women. Correctional facilities are now required to offer pregnancy and STD tests to inmates, in addition to prenatal, childbirth, and parenting materials. Mental health treatment must also be accessible to inmates during and after pregnancy.

Another major component of the law is the access to certified doulas in prisons. Doulas provide emotional guidance, group-based programs, and wellness advice to pregnant women.

When the nonprofit program Isis Rising began providing doula care at the Shakopee correctional facility, the number of babies born to inmates by cesarean section dropped by 60 percent in two years, and none of those babies were born preterm or at a low birth weight.

Visitors are not allowed in the hospital room when inmates give birth. A doula provides support for the mother during the procedure and when she is separated from the newborn 48 to 72 hours later.

But limits on the ruling may lead to obstacles. A prisoner can only use a doula if there are no costs for the prison. The funds must come from the woman herself or elsewhere.

Most inmates cannot afford the service, so Isis Rising covers the costs. But as the doula program expands with the new legislation, a shortage of funds could obstruct the program's reach. With this risk, it is clear that the state has only begun its work toward sustainable improvements.

A new committee will discuss future changes in the fall, which offers hope for more progress. Policymakers cannot ignore remaining issues like incarcerated women’s abilities to breastfeed, quality prison nurseries, and stricter standards for prenatal care.

The health and safety of the next generation relies on the health and safety of its mothers. By ensuring better beginnings for at-risk mothers and children, Minnesota is on track toward equal opportunity and communal stability.

  • We ran a similar program, with volunteer doulas, at no cost to the state for almost 8 yrs., in Cambridge Springs, PA. It was effective and much appreciated by the women it served. Unfortunately, we were unable to make any real permanent changes to the "culture" to make it more responsive to the unique needs of birthing women and mothers. The penal system in general stll behaves as though all inmates are men, and babies, children and families - existing families - suffer the consequences for as long as this remains the case. - by Michelle Colonnese Totleben on Fri, 08/29/2014 - 8:58pm
  • They made a mistake and they are serving their time but at this time they need help support and care just as other women!! - by Joey Larson on Wed, 07/09/2014 - 1:52pm
  • I think it is a wonderful idea, they have made mistakes but their babies did not! Cesarean section births are much more costly to the state or federal prisons so it also makes sense in an economic perspective. - by Jessica Larissa Long on Wed, 07/09/2014 - 2:01pm

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Lucille Marshall's picture
Lucille Marshall

Lucille Marshall is a Minnesota 2020 Undergraduate Research Fellow.