By Aara Ramesh
As of Sunday, Aug. 1, Minnesota’s Healthy Start Act kicked in, allowing some incarcerated pregnant and immediately postpartum women to serve their sentences in halfway houses, rehab centers, and other similar community facilities, so as to encourage bonding between mother and child during the first few months of life. With Governor Tim Walz’s signature in May, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to adopt such a measure.
Under the new law, the inmate can spend the entirety of their pregnancy and up to one year after the child is born in these community alternatives, which will be able to provide them with pre- and post-natal care, as well as parenting classes, the latter of which is highly requested among inmates. The Commissioner of the Department of Corrections (currently Paul Schnell) will be responsible for deciding if a given person falls into this category.
The Governor’s Office highlighted that “there are multifaceted societal and fiscal benefits for keeping the mother and newborn together, including reduced recidivism, re-entry support for individuals being released into the community, improved parenting, enhanced child wellbeing, and community involvement, all of which prompt a cascade of long-term, compounding benefits.”
Previously, inmates were returned to prison facilities around two or three days after they gave birth, possibly adding complications to what can be a difficult and traumatic time. It is estimated that, between 2013 and 2020, 278 pregnant people were handed jail terms in Minnesota.
Research indicates that in over half the cases in Minnesota, incarcerated mothers reach their release dates anyway within six months of giving birth, and over three in four do so within a year. Furthermore, 84% of the pregnant people incarcerated were convicted of nonviolent governing offenses, and 77% were imprisoned for technical violations of supervision.
Childcare experts say that this initial bonding is particularly crucial to the child’s development and the mother’s health. The National Institutes of Health says that not allowing a parent and a child to bond immediately after birth can have an adverse effect on the child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development in the long run. In addition, people who are jailed during and after their pregnancy are more likely to suffer postpartum depression.
Minnesota currently has one only-female prison, established in 1920 and located in Shakopee. Backers of the Healthy Start Act highlighted how the baby’s temporary caregiver can often find it difficult to travel to the women’s prison, either due to time or distance constraints. The state’s Corrections Department already works with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which sends doulas and other delivery specialists to Shakopee to support pregnant inmates.
The bill initially gained attention as a result of it being the first-ever all-women sponsored, bipartisan bill in the history of the Minnesota House. When the bill was signed into law, the state Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan said, “This is what happens when you center the voices of women at the decision-making table. Minnesota is the better for it. I am so proud of this historic policy that will improve the lives of moms and babies in our state.”
Observers say that women are the fastest growing demographic represented in America’s prison population, which itself is disproportionately higher than the rest of the world. According to some studies, 64.6 of every 100,000 American women are incarcerated; most of them are within their optimal reproductive age.
The Child Welfare League of America estimates that 4% of women in state prisons and 3% of women in federal prisons were pregnant when they were sentenced. Other studies say that this number can actually be as high as 5–10%.
Nationwide, there are 29 facilities for women convicted of federal offenses, run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. There are also numerous others across all 50 states, though there is no comprehensive, one-stop list of those. There are about eight prisons all over the country that allow select pregnant inmates who give birth while incarcerated to keep their newborns with them for a limited amount of time.