It’s hard for Raelene Baker to say which session is harder: the separation, when a new mother unwillingly gives her newborn away, or the follow-up, when she meets with that mother several days later — often the mom is still lactating, a painful physical reminder of the infant she cannot hold. As a doula who works in Minnesota jails and prisons, Baker regularly deals with these inevitable parts of the job.

“It’s just really painful,” Baker said. “I look at the baby who is nursing and know that the next time that baby eats, it won’t be from his or her mother. It will be from a bottle held by someone they’ve never met, after they’ve had these two days of snuggling and cuddling.”

As it stands, when a woman gives birth while incarcerated in Minnesota, she is not allowed to keep the baby. After two or three days in the hospital, the baby goes on to a new caregiver — a relative if possible, and if not, the baby goes into the state’s foster-care system.

Baker is the director of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, an organization that sends doulas, such as herself, to jails and prisons in the state to work with pregnant women who are incarcerated, and that also advocates for the rights of those women.

Thanks in large part to lobbying and organizing by Baker and her colleagues, starting in August, women in Minnesota will no longer experience this. A new law, signed by Gov. Tim Walz (D) in May, will make the state the first in the country to stop separating women in jail and prisons from their newborns. Several other states have programs in which infants may remain with their mothers for various lengths of time — but the United States as a whole is one of only four nations that routinely separate inmate mothers from their newborns. Some argue that these state programs don’t take a considered approach to making hard decisions about what’s best for children in challenging family situations.

Minnesota’s program stipulates that mother and child will be placed in a community-based program for up to a year. The details of what, exactly, those programs will look like is still being ironed out.

“It’s very exciting that Minnesota is leading in this,” Baker said. The goal of her organization is to end prison births in the United States, and she sees this as a meaningful move in that direction.

Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said that there are no other states close to passing similar legislation on her radar, but she is hopeful that seeing the Minnesota program roll out will inspire lawmakers in other jurisdictions. “I think that having the newborns with the parent after birth will do a lot in terms of humanizing the need,” she said.

Men greatly outnumber women in prison, but more and more women are going to jails and prisons every year. The number of women incarcerated in the United States grew at a rate more than twice that of men, 750 percent, between 1980 and 2017. In Minnesota, roughly 20 women give birth while incarcerated annually, according to the Star Tribune. Nursing for Women’s Health, a medical journal, reported that nationally, that number is estimated to be around 1,400. The journal also found that between 6 and 10 percent of women are pregnant when they enter jail or prison.

In Baker’s experience, most of the women she works with are incarcerated for minor offenses. “A lot of times, they’re in for something so minor, like a technical violation on an old, old charge. Maybe they’re doing better now and they’re healthier — and having a baby,” she said.

Of the 278 pregnant women who were criminally convicted in Minnesota between 2013 and 2020, 77 percent were for technical violations of their parole or probation, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with their supervising officer, and 88 percent had nonviolent offenses, according to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Over half of these women would be released within six months of giving birth. Lawmakers said they weighed statistics like these while considering the rationale for incarcerating these women and removing their babies.

“These are already very short sentences, but this period of time in a baby’s life and a mother’s life is critical,” state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate, told the Star Tribune. “There’s always that concern that you’re being soft on crime, but this is being soft on babies. It gives them a chance.”

Separation can be damaging to both mother and child, maternal health experts say. “For the infant in those early hours, days and weeks, they are rapidly taking in information and making connections,” said Carolyn Sufrin, a professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the project director of Advocacy and Research on Reproductive Wellness of Incarcerated People. “Being with the person who is going to care for them and who will feed them, that all has an important impact on their neurodevelopment.”

And for any mother, the days and months after giving birth can be extremely challenging physically and emotionally, regardless of the setting. Mental illness is more prevalent in the population of women behind bars, making them more vulnerable to postpartum depression, Sufrin said.

“Add another layer: They feel like they are being punished for giving birth,” she continued. “They are wondering who is taking care of their baby, feeling guilt and shame. Patients I’ve taken care of and colleagues I’ve worked with who have given birth in an incarcerated setting, this is something that still haunts them to this day — even decades later.”

Advocates in other states are taking note. “The folks in Minnesota, for a long time have been leading the country in thinking about the effects of incarceration on pregnancy,” said Amy Ard, executive director of Motherhood Beyond Bars, an Atlanta-based nonprofit. For years, she and others have been pushing lawmakers to improve conditions for women who are incarcerated in Georgia. But she is hopeful that the success in Minnesota will give lawmakers in her state a push. The state legislature is considering a similar, though much watered down, bill. The proposed Georgia law would allow judges the discretion to release pregnant women on bond and defer their sentence until 12 weeks postpartum.

“Do we think the Minnesota bill is a fantastic idea? Yes,” Ard said. “We believe these women can and should be in centers that can provide wraparound services for the entire family.”

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