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The Minnesota Prison Doula Project: Supporting Incarcerated Pregnant and Parenting Women

Minnesota Prison Doula Project

Minnesota Prison Doula Project

Date: 
April 21, 2016

The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs is excited to announce that the Minnesota Prison Doula Project is now housed at CURA’s offices. The Minnesota Prison Doula Project is a perfect fit for CURA because of the hands-on programmatic work by the Program Director Erica Gerrity and Program Coordinator Rae Baker combined with a strong research component added by Dr. Rebecca Shlafer. Learn more about the history and work of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project below.

Background

In the last 30 years, the institutionalization of women in correctional facilities has skyrocketed 800%. Nationwide, approximately 200,000 women are currently in prisons or jails, and about two-thirds of them are mothers. Even more staggering is that roughly 12,000 of these women are pregnant during their incarceration, and many will give birth while serving time. Incarcerated pregnant women are at risk for poor birth outcomes and costly interventions during labor and delivery. 

Working in partnership with incarcerated women, Gerrity and Baker collaborated to create the Minnesota Prison Doula Project.

This unique prison doula program is dedicated to reducing poor birth outcomes and creating an environment in which incarcerated women can achieve a healthy pregnancy and birth. Teaming with University of Minnesota researcher, Dr. Rebecca Shlafer, the Minnesota Prison Doula Project strives to transform cycles of community violence and poverty through early intervention, education, and advocacy. Through the use of doulas and peer support, this project aspires to create opportunities for empowerment, healing, and social change for women and their children.

What are Doulas?

For centuries, women have been helping other women through pregnancy and childbirth. In ancient Greek, the word doula described “a woman who serves.” Today, doulas are trained and experienced birth professionals who provide physical, emotional, and educational support to women before, during, and after birth. It is this comprehensive support that Gerrity heard women asking for during listening sessions she facilitated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility - Shakopee, sentiments that subsequently led to the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. 

Minnesota Prison Doula Project

In 2003, while volunteering at Minnesota’s only state prison for women, Gerrity, a social worker and doula, heard from women a desire for more pregnancy and parenting resources. Gerrity teamed with fellow doulas and began developing a program that would offer support and education to pregnant and parenting inmates. Gerrity shared the concept of a prison doula program with Everyday Miracles, a non-profit organization providing doula support for low-income, at-risk women in the Twin Cities community. She received positive reviews and pilot project start-up funds leading to the creation of Isis Rising. Years later, Isis Rising became the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, and is now a part of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Pregnancy - All inmates at Minnesota’s only women’s prison in Shakopee, MN receive pregnancy testing upon their arrival. If pregnant and expected to give birth during her sentence, a woman is offered a doula from the project who will coach her throughout her pregnancy. Initially, a woman will meet with a doula for two prenatal visits during which they discuss the progression of pregnancy, fetal development, prenatal health, a birth plan, and any other questions the expectant mother may have. She may also attend the New Moms Group.

Labor and Delivery - Once labor has started, the woman is transferred to a local hospital where she is met by her doula. Family and friends are not allowed; thus the doula becomes an essential person providing emotional support and physical comfort. She also assists the mother in getting information she needs to make informed decisions during this process. The doula supports an environment that is calm and comfortable, helping to reduce stress on mother and baby, which can result in shorter labors, healthier births, and reduced need for unnecessary medical interventions, such as costly cesarean sections.

Separation - In Minnesota, a new mother is not allowed to take her baby to prison with her.  Frequently arrangements are made to place the infant in the care of a relative. Separation is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of delivering a baby while in custody, and during this time, doulas play a critical role supporting the new mother through this emotional process. 

Postpartum - An incarcerated mother, who is experiencing all the typical hormonal and emotional changes following birth, must also cope with the reality that she must return to prison and her child is going to live with someone else. These additional stressors may increase the risk for postpartum depression. During this critical time, a doula again supports the mother’s health and well-being. While participating in one-on-one postpartum sessions with her doula, the new mom has the opportunity to discuss a variety of topics such as grief and loss, health issues, and coping strategies. Doulas do not provide diagnoses and are not part of a clinical visit, but they may help relieve anxiety experienced by a new mother or help her advocate for postpartum health care.

Group-Based Education & Support

Another role of the doulas is to provide education. The Minnesota Prison Doula Project developed two curriculums focused on creating opportunities for gaining valuable knowledge and skills related to mothering. Facilitated by doulas and clinical social workers, these 12-week classes are designed to increase parenting knowledge and improve strategies and support for parenting from prison or jail. Women can choose to attend the weekly sessions throughout their incarceration and often continue with the programs as their needs, and the needs of their children, change.

New Moms Group - In the 12-week New Moms Group, women spend time exploring the physiological and psychological elements of a healthy birth and discuss the process of giving birth while incarcerated. This type of peer group provides an opportunity for women to share their unique experiences and offer support to one another. Together they discuss topics like the importance of bonding with one’s child and acknowledging the painful emotions resulting from the separation of mom and baby. This group is an opportunity for mothers to empower, encourage, and support one another in their journey together. 

Mothering Inside Group - Over the first two years of the project, the number of women who wished to attend the New Moms Group grew substantially. This presented a new opportunity to provide group-based support to more incarcerated mothers. The Mothering Inside Group focuses on building strong and healthy connections between mothers, children, and caregivers. This group provides concrete skills and information, as well as a space for mothers to share with and learn from other mothers.

Outcomes

Results from the pilot study have been remarkable. Between July 2011 and June 2014, 39 births were supported by doulas and only one of those babies was born with a low-birth weight. Only four of the 39 babies were born via cesarean section (all of which were scheduled, repeat cesarean sections), significantly lower than national rates. 

Mothers who participated in this program had positive things to say about their experiences. Many echoed sentiments of gratitude for their doula and the support she provided.

Next Steps

As women in the Shakopee prison began to understand the power and meaning of this project, they suggested it be expanded to serve women in county jails. Thus far, the project has been expanded to Hennepin and Ramsey County correctional facilities with hopes of being implemented in all jails across the state. As part of the project’s expansion, Shlafer will continue conducting research and evaluation, with the goal of more comprehensively understanding the needs of incarcerated women and the project’s impact on their outcomes. 

In 2014 Minnesota’s Governor signed into law a bill limiting the use of restraints on incarcerated pregnant women and allowing them access to a doula during their incarceration. Encouraged by these policy changes, Gerrity and Shlafer continue to work to ensure all incarcerated women in Minnesota have access to birth support, and prenatal and parenting education, with the goal of supporting women’s health and the health of their children, our communities, and our state.