Minnesota Passes Law to Maintain the Connection between Women Inmates and Their Newborns
Photo by Cassie M. Chew

In a move that’s historical and one of its kind nationwide, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has passed a law stating that if female prisoners are either pregnant, due to give birth, or has recently given birth, the corrections commissioners have the authority to release the inmates to halfway houses for up to a year with their newborns; Walz signed the legislation in May and the bill will take effect in July.  Minnesota is the first state to pass such law.

Halfway houses are supervised treatment centers where a person who has served most of their prison sentence is granted a step-down to a halfway house before being fully released into the community full-time.

While it is unknown what factors had a significant influence on Walz’s decision to approve the bill regardless, author Briana Bierschbach of the Star Tribune noted that statistics showed that when inmate mothers were removed from their newborns shortly after giving birth, there were negative consequences.

“Research shows that the ­experience triggers higher rates of postpartum depression in mothers and severs bonding during a critical period of mental and physical development for newborns,” wrote Bierschbach.

Safia Khan, director of government and external relations for the Department of Corrections, told Bierschbach, “This is a forgotten population within a forgotten population. We don’t talk about women who are incarcerated and the children who are impacted by those incarcerations,” she said.  Khan added, “It’s a simple solution that will have a really profound impact for us to see on two generations.”

Bierschbach said it wasn’t until 2010 that the Minnesota Prison Doula Project step began to take measures by offering free birth coaches to inmates.

“Back then, women were sometimes handcuffed to their beds before and after delivery and weren’t given breast pumps when they returned to prison,” wrote Bierschbach. “The Legislature changed laws in 2014 to stop the practice of shackling pregnant women, and the department improved the postpartum care women received.” 

Rebecca Shlafer, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and researcher for the doula project, told Bierschbach, “Biologically, moms and babies are prepared to be together. That separation is really complicated,” “But then what happens when moms get out of prison and the goal is reunification? The moms and babies don’t know each other; they can’t dance together. The baby has been dancing with another partner for the last six months.”

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer of R-Big Lake offered her insights to Bierschbach as well. “These are already very short sentences, but this period of time in a baby’s life and a mother’s life is critical,” she said. “There’s always that concern that you’re being soft on crime, but this is being soft on babies. It gives them a chance.” Kiffmeyer sponsored the bill in the Senate.

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