Resources for pregnant mothers in US prisons are scarce, to say the least. Most offer limited prenatal care and in some states, newborns are only allowed to reside with their incarcerated mothers for 24 hours before they must be turned over to a relative. In a bid to make conditions for pregnant women in prison more humane, Minnesota is introducing new legislation to enhance prenatal care and housing for these mothers.
Under the new Healthy Start Act, pregnant mothers can serve their sentences in community-based alternatives such as halfway houses or rehabilitation centers. The policy offers a healthier environment for expectant mothers as well as the critical opportunity for children to bond with their mothers outside of prison during early development.
Although four percent of women in state prisons and three percent of women in federal prisons are pregnant when sentenced, there is no official federal policy as to rights and procedures for pregnant inmates.
Under the new policy, mothers will be allowed to reside in a community-based setting for up to a year after giving birth, with conditional releases considered on a case by case basis for each mother.
Research has shown that depriving children of the opportunity to bond with a parent shortly after birth can lead to cognitive deficiencies. Under the new law, mothers will not only be able to bond with children after birth, but also receive improved services while pregnant including parenting skills, prenatal care, postnatal care, and mental health counseling.
The legislation was pushed through in part due to work by the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which sends doulas to prisons to support pregnant mothers. They conducted ten years of research, including extensive interviews with pregnant women in prison, to create policy recommendations with the most benefits for these women.