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Minnesota Legislation Gives Moms Delivering Babies in Prison a Healthy Start

Mother holding her newborn


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Key Takeaways

  • Minnesota moms who deliver babies while in prison will have the chance to bond with their newborn after birth.
  • The Healthy Start Act may allow a mom to finish her sentence at a community facility and keep her little one with her.
  • Minnesota is the only state with this type of program.

After giving birth to a baby, a parent basks in the reward of spending time with their newborn. When that baby is taken away just days later, it disrupts the bonding experience. Incarcerated parents know that disruption all too well. But one state is changing that narrative.

Minnesota’s Healthy Start Act gives new moms in prison the chance to spend that critical time connecting with their infants. The bipartisan legislation allows incarcerated moms who have just given birth to serve part of their sentence in a community setting with their newborn.

What Is the Healthy Start Act?

Passed in May, the Healthy Start Act permits the Commissioner of Corrections to place incarcerated women who are pregnant or who have just delivered in community alternatives such as addiction treatment facilities or halfway houses. The moms can remain in the facility for up to a year with their baby. Additionally, women who need help or treatment are able to receive it.

An all-women team of state senators and representatives championed the legislation brought forth by the Department of Corrections. Other advocates were instrumental in the act’s passage, including prison doulas, formerly incarcerated mothers, children’s advocates, and academic partners who conducted research.

While less than a dozen states have prison nurseries, Minnesota is the only state with this type of solution in place. There is currently no federal standard on the treatment of parents who deliver a baby while confined.

The act seeks to be an innovative compromise offering the humanity and necessity of parental bonding, while still allowing justice to be served as the new parent completes their sentences.  

Why the Act Is Needed

Autumn Mason was blindsided after a plea deal allowing her to serve time in a community setting was overturned. She was scared, in shock, and 7 months pregnant when she was sentenced to Shakopee Correctional Facility, Minnesota’s only prison for women.

Mason gave birth while imprisoned. She had to try to bond with her baby, breastfeed, and have skin-to-skin contact with a prison guard in her hospital room. And she only had 36 hours to do it. After that time, Mason’s mother took her newborn daughter. Mason had to return to prison.

“Watching a vase drop and break and crack in slow motion—I think that’s the closest way to describe how I felt inside,” Mason says. She became despondent after going back to her cell. Her daughter became colicky, cried for hours, and developed digestive issues. The separation devastated both mother and child.

Mason is not alone. According to Minnesota Department of Corrections statistics, 278 pregnant women were sentenced to serve time in prison between 2013 and 2020. They had to endure the separation from their baby days after giving birth.

“Our current process is really traumatizing for both the mom and the baby. It doesn’t set people up for success when we are pushing for reunification,” notes Safia Khan, government and external relations director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

For many parents, the pain is compounded by a lack of ability to see their child. Additional statistics note that more than half of incarcerated moms don’t get visits from their babies, as it can be difficult for the caregiver.

“In the majority of the cases, the caregivers of these babies do not bring them to prisons to visit at all, for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes it is on average the caregivers are living over two hours away from our only women’s prison. In some cases, they have jobs, they have to make ends meet, and they can’t afford to come visit,” explains Khan.

Mason would call her mother and hear her baby crying, while she could do nothing to soothe her child. Mason became severely depressed. Postpartum depression is common, with one in nine women experiencing it. Stressful situations can exacerbate those feelings.

Kids Are Also Impacted

While Mason was hurting, research shows that mothers are not the only ones who suffer when moms and babies are separated shortly after birth. 

Rebecca Shlafer, PhD, MPH

The idea [of the baby’s] separation from the biological mom is a really heartbreaking one and has consequences for development in terms of kids’ social and emotional development in infancy.

— Rebecca Shlafer, PhD, MPH

“The idea [of the baby’s] separation from the biological mom is a really heartbreaking one and has consequences for development in terms of kids’ social and emotional development in infancy,” states Rebecca Shlafer, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School and research director for the Minnesota Prison Doula Project.

Dr. Shlafer notes that when the early bonding from nurturing, breastfeeding, and cuddling doesn’t take place, it can leave a developmental void in a child. Although they are often eventually reunited, significant damage is done.

Children can struggle with detachment, anxiety, and difficulty socializing for years to come. Mason acknowledges her now-7-year-old daughter still has developmental and attachment issues.

Wanting to be a resource to help other people giving birth in prison, Mason now serves as a reentry coach, peer support professional, and parenting program facilitator for the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. She says she recognizes how harmful and traumatic the experience can be and wants to support others. And that includes supporting the Healthy Start Act.

Helping Parents in the Future

The Healthy Start Act offers hope for just that—a healthy start in the lives of incarcerated moms and their children.

Safia Khan

Our hope for this is to impact two generations at once. You don’t often get the opportunity to do that in such a tangible way.

— Safia Khan

Proponents of the act look forward to its implementation and impact in the lives of incarcerated mothers. They also hope it serves as a blueprint for other states in the future.

“Our hope for this is to impact two generations at once. You don’t often get the opportunity to do that in such a tangible way,” Khan says. “At the end of the day, this is about the children.”

What This Means For You

Parent-baby bonding time is a critical start to a healthy, loving relationship between a parent and their newborn. The Healthy Start Act recognizes the damage that was done during the separation and seeks to prevent its detrimental effects in the lives of others.

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Article Sources
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  1. Minnesota Department of Corrections. Healthy Start Act. Published March 8, 2021.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. First of its kind statistics on pregnant women in U.S. prisons. Published March 21, 2019.

  3. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. Postpartum depression. Updated May 14, 2019.

  4. Pascuzzo K, Moss E, Cyr C. Attachment and emotion regulation strategies in predicting adult psychopathology. Sage Open. 2015;5(3). doi:10.1177/2158244015604695