Natalie Pollard with her baby, Chancellor, after she gave birth while incarcerated in 2016 at St. Francis Medical Center in Shakopee. Pollard was featured in a Valley News story about the Healthy Start Act earlier this year.

Each year, dozens of pregnant mothers at the Shakopee Correctional Facility must say goodbye to their babies after giving birth and then return to prison.

But a new law called the Healthy Start Act is changing that. It will allow qualifying mothers to transfer to an alternative setting to care for and bond with their infants while incarcerated. The law, which is the first of its kind in the nation, will also provide new moms with treatment and programming throughout their pregnancy and up to a year post-birth.

The Healthy Start Act, signed into a law by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz in May, has been a long time coming for advocates of the bill.

Before an incarcerated woman gives birth, the Shakopee Correctional Facility connects incarcerated pregnant women to a doula with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. The doula provides the mother with physical, emotional and informational support during pregnancy, labor and delivery and will meet with the mother at least twice before the delivery. The doula will also be at the hospital with the mother for the delivery.

DOC introduces bill to give incarcerated moms more time with babies

When an inmate gives birth, she isn’t allowed any visitors at the hospital, and a prison guard is present in the delivery room at all times. An assigned doula provided by the Minnesota Prison Doula Project is the only familiar face for the inmate.

Usually the day after an incarcerated woman gives birth, her doula will return to take photos of the mother and baby, and then the mother and infant will separate.

Keeping moms and their newborns together, according to a press release from the Department of Corrections, “has societal and fiscal benefits, including reduced recidivism, re-entry support for individuals being released into the community, improved parenting, enhanced child wellbeing and community involvement.”

Since Shakopee is home to the only women’s prison in the state, many women at the local correctional facility have children who live too far away for regular visits.

The Healthy Start Act would allow incarcerated moms to spend far more time with their babies, as well as get to know their doulas on a more personal level, both before and after they give birth.

“This historic bill was made possible by the tireless, bipartisan work of the Department of Corrections, legislative leaders, advocates, and mothers who shared their stories and fought for the wellbeing of their kids,” Walz said in a press release. “I am so proud to celebrate this accomplishment and sign the Healthy Start Act into law.”

Director of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project Raelene Baker said earlier this year the Healthy Start Act is a “good start,” but eventually, she’d like to see a bill that gives incarcerated mothers the option to give birth in a setting that’s more comfortable for them. The law does not change the birthing process for incarcerated moms.

“If you look at the goal of our parent organization, it’s to end prison birth in America,” Baker said.

Maddie DeBilzan graduated with a journalism degree from Bethel University. She’s interned at Salon Media and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Outside of work, she sifts through Goodwill clothing racks, listens to Ben Rector's music and goes on long runs.