Minnesota becomes first state to stop separating incarcerated moms from newborns

Although the details are still being ironed out, Minnesota will allow both mother and child to be placed in a community-based program for up to a year.

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The United States has more people in jail or prison than any other country in the world. Yet, as the calls for prison reform becomes louder with each passing year – the state of Minnesota has taken a historic step to protect pregnant inmates and their newborns from being separated right after childbirth.

While in prison, mothers who have given birth usually have two or three days to spend with their newborns before authorities take them away.

But according to The Lily, a doula in the Minnesota prison system named Raelene Baker has led the charge to put an end to what she believes is an inhumane practice that causes harm to both mother and child during their critical bonding stage. 

“It’s just really painful,” Baker said of what it’s like when a newborn child is ripped from the arms of its lactating mother. “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.”

After two or three days in the hospital, children of inmates are sent to stay with a relative if possible, and in cases where that isn’t feasible, they are placed into the state’s foster care system.

Baker, the director of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, an organization that sends doulas to work with incarcerated pregnant women, advocates for a more compassionate approach when dealing with such a vulnerable population of inmates. 

As a result of the lobbying she’s done along with her cohorts, last month Governor Tim Walz signed a law that will effectively make the state the first one in the country to stop separating new mothers from their children.

The details of what exactly the new programs will look like are still being ironed out. But the overarching intention is that moving forward, Minnesota will allow both mother and child to be placed in a community-based program for up to a year.

Jail fence Adobe Stock
(Adobe Stock)

“It’s very exciting that Minnesota is leading in this,” Baker said, noting that her organization’s ultimate goal is to end prison births in the United States. She believes this first victory is a meaningful move towards making that a reality.

For critics who bristle at the idea of giving inmates a reprieve just because they are pregnant, Baker explained that a significant number of the women she works with have been incarcerated for minor offenses that wouldn’t warrant being separated from their offspring.

“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.

To her point, statistics from the Minnesota Department of Corrections confirmed that “of the 278 pregnant women who were criminally convicted in Minnesota between 2013 and 2020, 77% 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% had nonviolent offenses.”

Pregnant woman
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

“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.”

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