Debra Columbus shuffled into the room wearing prison-issued gray sweats and became emotional as she struggled to articulate the trauma of giving birth while incarcerated.
She had just 36 hours to bond with her daughter, Naomi, in the hospital last month before being returned to the Shakopee prison. “It’s such a short time,” said Columbus, 31, who’s serving four years for a felony drug conviction.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” replied Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who toured the state’s sole facility for women Tuesday afternoon with Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville. The lawmakers say they’re committed to working with the Department of Corrections (DOC) to come up with alternative housing for pregnant women and mothers of young children.
Although it’s not clear what those changes might look like yet, officials argue that limiting separations would have broad implications on the community, bolstering the relationship between mother and child and, ultimately, reducing recidivism rates.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell noted that pregnant women often serve relatively short sentences. One inmate who recently gave birth is expected to get out Saturday.
“What’s the efficacy of having this mom and baby separated, only to have her come back here for few weeks then be released?” Schnell asked. “What the research tells us that the separations can have longstanding impacts.”
Little reliable data is kept about the number of pregnant inmates and how prisons care for them. One in 25 women in state prisons nationwide reported being pregnant when admitted, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which tracks national crime data. Shakopee did not systematically track that information before the Minnesota Prison Doula Project began operating at the prison in 2010.
The doula project, which pairs inmates with a free birth coach during labor, also provides parenting classes and other services for expectant mothers at Shakopee and in county jails. It prepares women for childbirth and provides hope that they can restore relationships with estranged children.
Flanagan and Becker-Finn held listening sessions with some of those volunteers Tuesday during private meetings with inmates and staff. Their tour included stops in the prison library, chapel, courtyard and parenting unit. Along the way, they chatted with women about which programming works and what they’d like to see changed.
Jennifer Anderson told lawmakers how supportive fellow inmates are in the parenting unit as they each navigate motherhood from behind bars.
“We miss our kids, and it’s nice to have someone else to talk to and to lean on during [hard] times,” said Anderson, whose son was a teenager when she first came to Shakopee nearly a decade ago.
The facility offers extended visits for mothers and their children every other Saturday, but transportation is often an obstacle to getting the kids there. Last session, Becker-Finn proposed legislation to establish the Mama’s Bus pilot project to provide parent and child bonding and literacy for incarcerated women and their children. It was included in Gov. Tim Walz’s budget, but it didn’t pass.
Flanagan and Becker-Finn, who are both American Indian, expressed concerns that these issues affect Indian women at a disproportionate rate.
Of 610 women housed at Shakopee, 115 — or 18% — identify as American Indian or Alaskan native. That’s roughly 14 times higher than the indigenous population statewide.
“We can see that racial disparities are alive and well in our society overall,” said Flanagan, who met several fellow White Earth band members on her visit. “It is like looking at relatives who are here.”
“Our job is to stop that generational re-traumatization.”
In recent years, Shakopee prison has implemented more gender-responsive policies to better address the unique needs of incarcerated women. Last fall, the prison began providing a variety of unlimited menstrual products, including tampons, to inmates at no cost.
Expectant mothers can now receive parenting courses, additional food, and a breast pump to maintain milk production in cases where a new mother will be released soon enough to breast-feed at home.
But advocates say there’s much more to do to.
Other states have begun storing breast milk longterm and now permit inmates to breast-feed during supervised visits with their infants.
“It’s certainly something we should look at,” said Flanagan, adding that similar internal policy changes may not require legislative action.