New bill for pregnant inmates goes into effect, but funding isn't certain

<a href="" target="_blank">Michael Coghlan via Flickr</a>

Michael Coghlan via Flickr

As a pediatric researcher and assistant professor with the University of Minnesota, Rebecca Shlafer has studied children, and more specifically, the children of incarcerated women, for years. She's seen just how difficult life was for pregnant inmates, who are often alone in their pregnancy, feeling isolated and confused.

But in 2012, Shlafer saw how things could change. That's when she and UMN started working with the nonprofit Everyday Miracles on the Isis Rising project, a program to support pregnant inmates at the all-female correctional facility in Shakopee. The program, which started in 2010, supplies the pregnant women with doulas - professionals who are like coaches for for pregnant women, giving them emotional guidance and support through the entire pregnancy process.

See also: Minnesota prison term lengths on the rise as crime falls

The program has two components: a one-on-one program between doulas and inmates, and a group-based program for inmates to discuss the pregnancy process and share experiences. As soon as Schlafer started studying the Isis Rising Program and examining the effect the doulas had, she could see a difference in how the inmates were acting and dealing with their pregnancy.

"And what's also really cool is because we have group-based support, not only are they getting this one-one-one support, but they're getting to talk with their peers about this," Shlafer says. "And we've seen that there are changes in depressive symptoms and confidence just by going through this group therapy. Which is amazing."

With a new law that goes into effect July 1st, those doula services will be available for state prisons, and by next year, they'll be available in all detention facilities in the state, from county jails to workhouses. The law not only expands doula services but also improves conditions for pregnant women in other ways, too, such as providing pregnancy tests and making it illegal to restrain prisoners during labor with cuffs or chains.

But the expanded law could come at a cost. According to the new law, a prisoner can only use a doula if the services "are provided by a certified doula without charge to the correctional facility or the incarcerated woman pays for the certified doula services." That means that there are only two ways a woman can access doula services in prison: either the doula will have to work for free, or the prisoner will have to pay for it. And that's something that could be difficult for inmates.

"This population, the likelihood of them being able to afford a doula is real low," said Schlafer.

Rep. Carolyn Laine (DFL-Columbia Heights), who authored the bill, said that for those who can't afford a doula, Isis Rising will step in to support them. However, while Isis Rising has never turned away an inmate before, the nonprofit only has so much money right now. So If there's too much demand, that could spell trouble.

"To have that many people wanting doulas, it would be a good problem to be in," Schlafer said. "But we do pay our doulas to do the work that they're doing. So that money has to come from somewhere."

As of now, Isis Rising isn't panicking, but they do know they'll need to work in overdrive to get the funds to expand the program, especially when it expands to every institution in the state in an year. Rae Baker, the program coordinator for Isis Rising, said that's a big challenge, but the group is already searching for new grants and private donations.

And Laine, the bill's author, says that one of the good things about the law is that it's created an advisory board to find new ways to fix those problems in the future and even potentially create new policies, like increased pre-natal care and nutrition, to give proper care to inmates.

"We've still got work to do," Laine said.