When Autumn Mason arrived at the Shakopee women’s correctional facility in Minnesota in 2014, she was seven and a half months pregnant.
While Mason delivered a healthy daughter, she remembers the trauma and pain around the experience of giving birth while incarcerated. She was not allowed to have visitors, and was under the supervision of two guards, Mason says. “Initially the guards were outside of the room during labor, but once I delivered, they were in the room the whole time.”
After giving birth, Mason, holding her newborn child, was shackled to her hospital bed by her ankles for about three hours. She says Shakopee’s policy had changed two weeks later, prohibiting the restraint of women giving birth unless there was a flight risk. She was later unshackled by the next shift of guards.
“I was not just shackled when I got back to the prison. I was strip-searched extensively,” Mason says. “The supportive products that the hospital had given me for after-labor care were taken from me, even down to gauze. It was totally demoralizing.”
Mason’s family was not allowed to see her before or after giving birth, although they did come to the hospital to take the baby. Breaking the rules about visitors, the father of Mason’s child came into her room. Although the two were able to have a moment together, he was required to leave.
Thirty-six hours after giving birth, Mason was separated from her daughter for the next six weeks, until her daughter was cleared by the Shakopee correctional facility to visit with family. Mason’s mother raised her daughter until they were permanently reunited after Mason’s release.
Minnesota’s changed law also gives incarcerated women access to doula services and prenatal and parenting materials.
There are still 23 states where it is legal for pregnant women to be shackled, according to Colleen Bell, the co-chair of the board of directors for the Ostara Initiative, which is an umbrella organization for The Minnesota Prison Doula Project (MnPDP) and similar programs nationally.
Since the 1980’s, the number of women who are incarcerated nationally has increased by over 600 percent. Nationally, about three to four percent of them are pregnant when entering correctional facilities.
The separation of Mason and her daughter, who is now four, damaged their bonding. “She did not do well with strangers, and I was a stranger to her,” Mason said. Since being released from prison, they have built a better relationship.
Safia Khan has been Director of Government and External Relations for the Minnesota Department of Corrections since 2019. She says she came to her position with a particular interest in what work was being done to improve the situation for incarcerated women at Shakopee, what advocates were asking for, and what issues the data suggests.
One of the details she found in the data was shocking, she says. From 2013 to 2020, women imprisoned while pregnant had not committed a new crime — 77 percent had been incarcerated for a technical violation, such as violating probation by not checking in. Some had never previously been in prison, but had made a mistake with a condition of their probation.
Many of these women, the data showed, also were in prison for an average of 4.5 months. The “good” news is that they tend to have strong prenatal care in prison, Khan says, “but that should not be the place for that. Nor should it be where they go for substance abuse treatment. Community-based support would be a better option.”
The data shows that 41 percent of these women reach their release dates within 90 days, Khan says. “Separating mother and baby at any early period in the baby’s life does not facilitate good bonding.”
Kiki Beswick worked with at least 20 women as a prison doula. Her work involved advocating for incarcerated women to nurses, doctors, and staff. Beswick found it difficult to separate incarcerated mothers from their newborn children. “It is one of the hardest things that I have done.It is inhumane,” she says.
There are many factors that can make healthy child development difficult for women facing incarceration, according to Rebecca Shlafer, who is an assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Shlafer is the research director for MnPDP.
Research has shown that separating children from their mothers at birth can have negative impact on childhood development. “We know that that parent-child relationship in the first years of life is so critical to the foundations of all development,” Shlafer says. “It is emotionally painful. It can be physically difficult for moms to be separated from their babies.”
Prior to COVID-19, doulas were able to see the mothers they served in-person. However, the pandemic has restricted doula presence before or after the birth — they can only be present during the birth.
For security reasons, the correctional facility does not tell women when they will be taken to the hospital, says Shakopee’s parenting coordinator Lori Timlin. No nonmedical personnel are permitted to attend the birth outside of two correction officers.
“It is a security issue,” Timlin says. “The reality is there is a risk of escape. Although very few pregnant women are thinking about taking off, it is protocol.”
Khan has been working on a program to allow pregnant or postpartum women to live outside of prison with their children. The proposal would place women in halfway houses where they could get treatment, parenting classes, and prenatal care. It is part of the governor’s budget proposal to the legislature that includes $200,000 for this pilot program.
The budget decisions need to be made by June 30, and the regular legislative session is currently scheduled to end in May. Khan expects it would take six to 12 months to set up the program for participation if approved.
Between 2013 and 2020, she says, there were 278 pregnant women coming through the Shakopee correctional facility, and about half give birth during their incarceration term. This program would offer a much better setting for women whose infraction with the law tends to be minor. “It is about building resiliency in community with others,” Khan says. “It is about being advocates for their future, and the future of their children.”
Beyond pregnancy concerns, the pandemic has impacted living conditions for prisoners. One of them, Elizabath Hawes, says that, until recently, prisoners at Shakopee women’s correctional facility were kept in their rooms for most of the day since the beginning of the pandemic to avoid spreading the disease.
“Everyone basically was in their room 22 hours a day. I was locked in with two breaks — a 25-minute break and an hour break,” Hawes says.
To get a message to friends in other parts of the prison, Hawes says, they yelled out messages when passing each other in the hallways.
Those who tested positive were segregated.
The restrictions were recently lifted for the first time.