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Pregnant in prison: What it's like to give birth while incarcerated

Keesha Brousseau has colorful tattoos that unfurl from her gray T-shirt and matching shorts. She walked around Shakopee’s correctional facility — or, rather, waddled, with her hand under her belly that protrudes from her gray shirt like a watermelon. When asked about her soon-to-be newborn baby boy, she smiled softly, but her eyes glossed.

“I don’t want him to get caught up in this cycle,” she said.

Brousseau was due to have her baby, who she plans to name Kodin, on Friday, Aug. 9. She’s prepared to leave for the hospital any day. But unlike most soon-to-be mothers, she doesn’t have a readied car seat, homemade baby blanket or a bag full of tiny diapers. She will deliver her baby, and between 24 and 48 hours later, she will return to the prison with breasts full of milk and loose skin on her stomach.

Lori Timlin, the parenting coordinator at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee, said she doesn’t think anyone can appreciate what it’s like for a mother to say goodbye to her day-old infant after giving birth.

“It’s horrible for the women,” Timlin said. “I really can’t emphasize how difficult it is for them.”

Brousseau, a cosmetologist from Annandale who has been in prison since November for assaulting a former boyfriend, didn’t know she was pregnant until three months after arriving at the Shakopee prison. When the pregnancy test came back positive, she said her world crashed.

“That’s definitely not the plan,” she said, “to have a baby while in prison.” But she said she didn’t want to terminate the pregnancy just because she was behind bars.

Brousseau calls herself lucky. She’s expected to be released Sept. 18, when Kodin will be about 6 weeks old. Her mother will care for him until her release.

Maternity care

for inmates

When an inmate like Brousseau finds out she is pregnant, Timlin meets with her to talk about a plan. If she is confident she wants to carry through with the entire pregnancy, the prison then directs the inmate to a doula with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, who provides the inmate with physical, emotional and informational support during pregnancy, labor and delivery. That doula will meet with the inmate at least twice before the delivery, and will meet with her at the hospital for the delivery.

In addition to meetings with the doula, inmates are scheduled for routine check-in appointments with doctors. For Brousseau, that meant monthly appointments early on in her pregnancy, bi-weekly appointments between 30 and 36 weeks of her pregnancy and weekly appointments once she hit 36 weeks of pregnancy.

Brousseau and other pregnant inmates are escorted out of the hospital by two prison guards, who walk a few feet in front and behind the unhandcuffed woman as she walks into the hospital or doctor’s office. When the women come back to the prison from their appointments, they are strip-searched and required to squat and cough. The Minnesota Department of Corrections said this is standard practice for any inmate who returns to prison from an off-grounds obligation.

Brousseau, who has given birth twice before, will deliver Kodin at Saint Francis in Shakopee. The first time she went into labor, nine years ago, she had a Cesarean section because she had twin girls. The second time, which was three years ago, she gave natural birth to another girl.

“I don’t want to give a C-section again,” she said. “I hope it’s a natural birth.”

She gave those children up to her aunt and uncle for adoption before she left for prison, she said. But she gets a second chance with Kodin.

Until she’s released, Brousseau will have to make do with a special four-hour visitation every other Saturday specific to mothers at the prison, along with one-hour visitations throughout the week.

Brousseau said as far as pregnancy goes while in prison, “it’s been pretty simple.” She tries to stay active, and pregnant women are given more time than other inmates to use the courtyard to get fresh air and the gym to get exercise. And a prison support group called Pregnancy and Beyond helps mothers and mothers-to-be like Brousseau who need help coping with the absence of their children. There are also incarcerated mothers available to mentor the inmates, Timlin said.

An inmate’s delivery: no visitors and a guard in the room

When an inmate gives birth, she isn’t allowed any visitors at the hospital, and a prison guard — usually a woman — is present in the delivery room at all times. Timlin said this is for security reasons.

“We can’t control that setting, and there’s too many variables for us,” she said.

The doula is the only person other than medical staff who is able to have physical contact with the mother. Brousseau’s doula will feed her ice chips and help coach her through the delivery: something a mother, partner or friend would normally do for the woman.

“The doula’s hope is to assist Mom in giving a favorable childbirth experience,” Timlin said. “From a humane standpoint, it’s so women aren’t going through this alone.”

The doula will come back after the baby is born to take photos of the mother and baby, and will help comfort the inmate during her separation visit with the baby.

Rae Baker, the coordinator for the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, could not respond to any questions, stating they were ordered not to respond to media requests without DOC approval, which the Valley News could not get in time for the story.

Better alternatives

Timlin said she thinks the Shakopee prison is doing the best it can do with the cards in its hand. Because it only averages 10 to 12 pregnant inmates at any given time, and the average length of stay for those women is less than six months, adding an entirely new unit for those pregnant inmates and their newborns would be too expensive.

But Timlin said if it were possible financially, she thinks a prison nursery would be the most humane option.

“It’s not something our department is willing to pay for because there aren’t enough correctional officers,” she said. “But there’s good research to show those babies do pretty well.”

Timlin also added: “I do think, in many ways, this is the least ideal setting, however, this is where many women find themselves.”

If women are going to be at the facility for less than 90 days following their delivery, they can pump their breast milk to keep their supply going. At the moment, the DOC does not have the ability to store and deliver the milk to the inmate’s baby.

“That’s the other thing that’s really hard,” Timlin said.

Post-partum, Timlin said the inmate’s doula will meet with her at least once or twice to make sure she’s coping. In some cases, the women are put on antidepressants and have to seek counseling.

“It’s horrible for women to have to leave their newborns,” Timlin said.

The Department of Corrections says they ensure pregnant women are provided with the same medical care as someone outside the prison gates.

“We take great measures to care for the safety and well-being of all women under our charge. Women are provided the same care medically that they would be provided in the community,” Warden Tracy Beltz said. “Pregnant women and women with children are provided access to resources including but not limited to parenting programming, the Parenting Living Unit, doulas, and extended visits.”

That’s something Brousseau agrees with, as well. She gets the medical care she needs.

But it doesn’t make the hospital goodbye kisses any easier.

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Shawn Meyer of Shakopee points to an area of a large rock he found that he cut off for testing in hopes of showing it was a meteorite. It’s more likely a hunk of iron ore, a University of Minnesota professor said, a magnetic and dense rock often mistaken for meteorites around the state. Only a handful of extraterrestrial rocks have been found in Minnesota.

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Department of Administration says it hasn't received opinion request from Shakopee Schools, city (copy)

The Shakopee School District said it’s been waiting on a decision from the Minnesota Department of Administration about whether an unredacted report on the district’s overall operational health can be released.

But Katie Bealka in the department’s data practices office said Tuesday afternoon it had yet to receive such a request. The Department of Administration often provides assistance and advice on data practices and open meetings to the public and government.

The district announced as recently as Monday, Aug. 5 in a press release it was still awaiting a decision.

“I don’t know if (the request) got lost in the mail or what happened,” Bealka said, adding that her office reached out to the school district Tuesday afternoon to ask it about the request after seeing it discussed in a story by the Shakopee Valley News.

When questions began swirling around former Superintendent Rod Thompson in 2017, the district hired a third party to investigate the overall operational health of the district. The report, called a NeuVest report for the company that does it, was turned over to the Shakopee Police Department as evidence. Earlier this year, Thompson was sentenced to prison in federal court for soliciting bribes and in state court for swindling and embezzlement.

The district has resisted releasing the full report, citing personnel privacy concerns, even as police have said it should be public.

Shakopee Superintendent Mike Redmond said at a June 24 school board meeting that the request to the Department of Administration was in the process of being made, noting the attorney’s best estimate for a response was approximately two months.

“As of now, our district is still awaiting the decision by the Department of Administration on whether the report is to be considered public and released in its unredacted version,” the Aug. 5 news release from the district said, in bold font. The press release on the district’s website has since been altered and no longer contains that statement.

On Wednesday, Aug. 7, Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate told the Valley News the police department and district’s attorneys are “still going back and forth on drafts,” contradicting the school district’s press release.

Under Minnesota Statute Section 13.03, if the responsible authority denies a data request, it must cite the specific statute under which it cannot release the report. The police department did not provide the Valley News with that statute, but said in a statement:

“The school district raised multiple legal arguments as to why the report should be private data. We are honoring the district’s request to have the Department of Administration issue an advisory opinion on the matter,” Tate said. “Releasing private data exposes our city to civil remedies and we would rather be right than fast. Again, we believe the report is public, the district does not.”

In a statement to the Valley News that same day, Redmond said the district was also frustrated by the “slow pace of the process.”

“We thought conversations between the attorney for the school district and the attorney for the City of Shakopee would last a few days; not a few weeks,” Redmond said.

The district also said in a Wednesday afternoon statement it “knew conversations were taking place and thought those conversations were going to be wrapped up a couple weeks ago.”

Bealka said once an opinion request is submitted, the Department of Administration has five days to deny it or follow through with it. Opinion requests can be denied if they have already been formed through similar cases or there isn’t enough information provided in the request, she said.

‘Shift responsibility’

After the Valley News published a story online Wednesday about the delayed submission to the Department of Administration, Shakopee Public Schools released a statement later that day that said the responsibility to fulfill the opinion request was solely on the city.

“Late this afternoon, Shakopee Public Schools was informed by an attorney working for the district that the Shakopee Police Department (City of Shakopee) has decided to no longer send a joint request to the Department of Administration regarding the release of the NeuVest Report,” the statement said. “The City of Shakopee will make this request to the Department of Administration on its own.”

The update then explains that any requests to view the NeuVest report were made to the police department, so the city has “always controlled the final decision as to whether to make a joint request, a lone request, or to not send a request to the Department of Administration.”

Thursday morning, the police department told the Shakopee Valley News that a request has been sent to the DOA on behalf of the city. The paper is awaiting a copy of that letter from Sarah Sonsolla, the city attorney.

Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds said in a statement Thursday morning:

“It is unfortunate that the school district seeks to shift responsibility to the city for the continued failure to release the NeuVest report. Our position has been clear. We believe the vast part of the document to be public data. The district has blocked our action and has spent the last month debating the cover letter that should be attached to submit it to the state. That ended (Wednesday). We look forward to this being behind us all and moving forward.”

Jeff Tate echoed Reynolds’ frustration, saying he was disappointed in the school district’s press release Wednesday evening that “shifted the blame” onto the city. The city decided to move forward on its own with the request because it was tired of the back-and-forth with the district. He added the city’s attorney sent its original opinion request to the DOA Wednesday. He said the reason the joint request was taking so long was because the school district continued to go back and forth with the city in attempts to edit the police department’s original letter.

History of

NeuVest report

Shakopee Public Schools has spent about $2,900 in legal costs since May regarding the release of the report. The district released an invoice from Knutson Flynn & Deans, a Mendota Heights-based law firm, on Aug. 5 which detailed related legal costs. According to the invoice, the last date of legal work was on June 28.

The Shakopee Valley News submitted a public data request to view the completed NeuVest report in 2017. The district said it was bound to comply with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, which generally classifies data on individuals regarding current and former employees of the school district as private data, according to the release.

The request was fulfilled, but the report was largely redacted, or blacked out.

The district has now spent nearly $75,000 on the report and related legal costs, which began accumulating in 2017. The NeuVest investigation cost $56,733.72, according to the district, and the process of redacting the information cost an additional $15,179.95.

The Valley News requested the report from the school district before Thompson’s sentencing in federal and state courts this year. After his sentencing, the newspaper requested it from the police department.

The district said it made a joint request with the city to obtain an opinion on the data privacy matter from the Minnesota Department of Administration. Emails between the police department and district attorneys show Sonsalla, the police department’s attorney, believed the report should have been made public since the investigation ended.

On May 30, the school district’s attorney, Stephen Knutson, sent a letter to Tate stating “the police department is prohibited from providing the complete unredacted report to the public” because of private data contained in it.

A June 13 response from Sonsalla, the police department’s attorney, said because the report is in the hands of the city and the investigation is complete, the report should be made public.

Knutson pushed back, saying because the NeuVest report contains private information under the jurisdiction of the school district, that privacy also applies to the police department even in an inactive investigation.