Autumn Mason barely slept for 36 hours, afraid to miss a moment with her newborn daughter.
Mason named her Reality, to reflect the sobering situation they both faced. Sometimes shackled to her hospital bed, she cradled her infant under the watchful eye of prison guards. She rubbed her scent on every scrap of the baby's clothing in hopes her tiny daughter might remember her.
But before two days were up, she was separated from Reality and sent back to the women's prison in Shakopee to finish the rest of her 32-month sentence.
"Just imagine in slow motion watching a vase hit the floor and break into pieces," Mason said. "That's how I felt inside."
Now, thanks to stories like Mason's and a yearslong push from advocates, in July Minnesota will become the first state in the nation to stop the practice of separating mothers in prison from their newborns, instead placing them in a community-based program together for up to a year after birth. Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law in May.
Roughly 20 inmates each year give birth while incarcerated in Minnesota and are then separated from their babies while they finish their prison sentences. Research shows that the experience triggers higher rates of postpartum depression in mothers and severs bonding during a critical period of mental and physical development for newborns.
Officials say the new policy will have broad implications and help to reduce recidivism rates.
"This is a forgotten population within a forgotten population. We don't talk about women who are incarcerated and the children who are impacted by those incarcerations," said Safia Khan, director of government and external relations for the Department of Corrections. "It's a simple solution that will have a really profound impact for us to see on two generations."
The new policy is a major shift in a state that has struggled over the years with how to handle a growing number of women who enter the prison system, some of them pregnant. The state didn't systematically track data on pregnant incarcerated women until the Minnesota Prison Doula Project began in 2010, providing free birth coaches to inmates.
Back then, women were sometimes handcuffed to their beds before and after delivery and weren't given breast pumps when they returned to prison. The Legislature changed laws in 2014 to stop the practice of shackling pregnant women, and the department improved the postpartum care women received.
But babies were still being separated from their mothers just a few days after birth. Visiting the prison required extensive clearance for the newborns and it wasn't always a practical option for the families who cared for the babies. On average, the families lived nearly two hours from the prison in Shakopee.
"Biologically, moms and babies are prepared to be together. That separation is really complicated," said Rebecca Shlafer, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and researcher for the doula project. "But then what happens when moms get out of prison and the goal is reunification? The moms and babies don't know each other, they can't dance together. The baby has been dancing with another partner for the last six months."
Jennifer Brown was four months pregnant when a technical violation of her probation sent her back to prison. She delivered baby Elijah in March 2020 via Caesarean section under the watch of two guards and was separated from him within 48 hours of giving birth. Two days after that, the Shakopee prison ended all visitation to the facility due to COVID-19.
It was more than six months before Brown could see her son's face again, other than in the photographs provided by a family that took him in. When they were reunited after her release, Elijah was distressed and wouldn't come to her right away.
They're starting to repair that bond and she's seen other milestones since then, like his first steps. But she still thinks about the time that was lost between them. "I lost being able to nurture him, being able to see his first giggles and experience the cuddles when he's sleeping," she said.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, visited the Shakopee prison in 2019 with Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and talked to a number of inmates about their care. She had no idea that they were separated from their babies after birth.
"As someone who has birthed two babies and knows exactly that moment when you are discharged from the hospital, it broke me," she said. "It was one of those things where, well, now we know about this, we cannot just accept that this is how it is."
Between 2013 and 2020, 278 pregnant women were sentenced to serve time in Minnesota facilities, 77% for technical, nonviolent offenses that violated the terms of their supervision. More than three-quarters of those women hit their release date within one year of giving birth and many went back to being primary caregivers for their children.
That information was critical in pulling together a bipartisan group of women at the Capitol to sign on to the bill.
"These are already very short sentences, but this period of time in a baby's life and a mother's life is critical," said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. "There's always that concern that you're being soft on crime, but this is being soft on babies. It gives them a chance."
Under the new law, the corrections commissioner can place women who are pregnant or have just given birth into community alternatives such as halfway houses, supervise them and provide them treatment for up to one year post-birth.
The House proposal had the maximum number of sponsors, all of them women. The full chamber approved the bill the day after Mother's Day.
Mason was overjoyed to hear lawmakers approved the change. She remembers bursting into tears in prison anytime someone used baby powder because it reminded her she was separated from her newborn.
By the time Mason got out of prison, Reality was nearly 3 years old and more introverted and emotionally withdrawn than her other two children. Now nearly 7, Reality is finally showing emotional attachment to Mason, but it took years to rebuild that relationship.
"I didn't want any other woman or any other child to struggle the way that we did," she said. "Now it's a reality that no other mother in Minnesota, at least for now, will experience prison birth. That makes it all worth the experience."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042