When Jennifer Brown left Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee on a work-release program, it had been six-and-a-half months since she had seen her son, Elijah. The last time they’d been together was when she gave birth to him, under the watch of two prison guards, in a hospital near the prison. Brown had forty-eight hours with her newborn before she had to hand him over to a family chosen by Together for Good, a religious nonprofit that places vulnerable children in foster care.
When Brown and her son met for the second time, the baby cried and did not immediately warm to his mother. Brown said she initially thought “he does not like me,” before conceding that, in reality, “he did not know me.”
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Until this summer, incarcerated people who gave birth in Minnesota had a maximum of 72 hours with their newborns before they were separated. (The length of time depended on the type of birth.) In many other states, the parent and child have as little as 24 hours. As Alysia Santo wrote in PBS Frontline, “giving birth means saying goodbye.”
But recently, stories such as Brown’s and the advocacy of organizations such as the Minnesota Prison Doula Project — an initiative that provides pregnancy and parenting support to incarcerated people in Minnesota — have driven a major policy change. As of August 2021, people who are serving a prison sentence in the state will no longer be separated from their newborns after giving birth.
The Healthy Start Act, which was signed into law by Governor Tim Walz in May, allows the Department of Corrections to place incarcerated pregnant or postpartum parents into community alternatives. These include halfway houses or residential treatment facilities where parents can access treatment for the duration of their pregnancy and bond with their newborns for up to one year after giving birth.
The bill is the next step in a broader push toward improving prenatal and postpartum care for people in prison nationwide. Thirty-two states have passed restrictions on pregnant shackling, seven states have ended solitary confinement for pregnant people, and a few localities have increased the budget for prenatal care. While there are nine prison nurseries in other states across the country that allow children to stay with their parents, the Healthy Start Act is first-of-its-kind legislation because it permits postpartum people to bond with their newborns outside of prison.
According to Safia Khan, Director of Government and External Relations at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, about half of all pregnant people who enter a Minnesota prison will leave while still pregnant. Among the other half that give birth in prison, the majority reach their release dates within six months after giving birth.
Kahn emphasized that while “the separation period is often temporary and short, it is hugely disruptive to bonding and hugely traumatizing for the mother and for the child.” The importance of parent-infant bonding for the early development of newborns and the mental and physical health of postpartum people has been well documented. It impacts everything from the development of connections between brain cells fundamental to learning to the ability to build loving, trusting relationships later in life.
The new law is particularly important for Native American communities: Despite making up only 1.4 percent of the state’s overall population, 34 percent of the people who were pregnant in Minnesota prisons between 2013 and 2020 were Native American. The bill’s passage is due in part to the leadership of Native American elected officials in the state. State Representative Jamie Becker-Finn and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan both championed the legislation. During the discussion of the Healthy Start Act before it passed in the state legislature, Representative Becker-Finn said the legislation represents “an incredible opportunity to disrupt cycles of trauma.”
“At first, it was a difficult transition” when Jennifer initially reunited with Elijah. But “since then, our bond has grown so much,” she said, as she has been able to witness some of his milestones, including crawling and walking.
While Jennifer was in prison, she would often find herself wondering what her son looked like. Now, she can detail the mundanities that come with a shared bond: the types of food he likes (watermelon) and dislikes (tomatoes); the sound of his laugh; and his quickness to smile.