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One state is trying to make pregnancy in prison slightly more bearable

The Healthy Start Act allows pregnant mothers to serve their sentences in community alternatives, such as halfway houses or addiction rehabilitation centers.
Illustration of a mother in a prison jumpsuit laying with her baby in a crib made of prison bars.
Pregnant women in Minnesota’s prisons are now eligible for a new program that could allow them to give birth and bond with their babies during a crucial period when nurturing is particularly important for the development of children.Franco Zacharzewski / for NBC News

Natalie Pollard was nearly nine months pregnant when she went to prison after having been found guilty in the stabbing death of a boyfriend who she says was abusive, maintaining that she killed him in self-defense. The day after she gave birth, she had to give her newborn to a relative.

The next time she saw her baby was in the visiting room at Shakopee Correctional Facility, Minnesota’s sole state prison for women. Her son was 3 months old.

“I took off his socks and looked at his feet and kissed them,” Pollard recalled. “I held him up and looked at his stomach and kissed it. I flipped him over and looked at his hair and back — and everything. I was thinking: Oh yeah, I really did have a baby. I started to cry.”

Autumn Mason also gave birth in Shakopee and handed her baby to a relative 36 hours later. “That emotional experience is hard to explain,” she said. “For myself, I struggled a lot emotionally and mentally. I never even considered that there were women who were treated this way until I experienced it.”

Autumn Mason with her newborn daughter Reality before she had to give her up.
Autumn Mason with her newborn daughter Reality before she had to give her up.Courtesy Minnesota Prison Doula Project

Beginning Sunday, pregnant women in Minnesota’s prisons became eligible to avoid what Pollard and Mason experienced. In May, the state passed the Healthy Start Act, which allows pregnant mothers to serve their sentences in community alternatives, such as halfway houses or addiction rehabilitation centers. The change allows mothers and their babies to bond during what is recognized as a crucial period when nurturing is particularly important for the development of children.

“The first-in-the-nation Healthy Start Act does what’s right for mothers and their children by keeping them healthy, and keeping them together,” Gov. Tim Walz said in a news release.

Nationally, there is no standard policy for what happens when a woman gives birth while incarcerated. Only recently have some states, like Minnesota, Georgia and New York, banned the shackling of pregnant women during labor and childbirth, but advocates for imprisoned women complain that often guards are unaware of the change. Mason was shackled by mistake and released before she gave birth.

Nationwide, 4 percent of women in state prisons and 3 percent of those in federal prisons are pregnant at sentencing, according to the Child Welfare League of America. Depriving infants from bonding with a parent shortly after birth can effect the child's cognitive, social and emotional development according to a 2016 analysis published by the National Institutes of Health

The Healthy Start Act allows mothers to be with or in contact with their newborns for up to a year. While eight states have prison nurseries that allow mothers to stay with their newborns for one to three years after delivery, Minnesota’s new law is the first to offer the possibility of conditional release.

“We want to take a comprehensive approach,” said Paul Schnell, commissioner of the state Corrections Department. “We want to place mothers according to their need — where they can receive parenting skills, prenatal care, postnatal care or mental health counseling. We know the healthier the bond is between mother and child, the more likely these women will be successful.”

Under the new policy, a pregnant incarcerated woman would apply for the conditional release, which Schnell’s office would consider case by case.

The Corrections Department already works with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which sends doulas and other delivery specialists to Shakopee to support pregnant women.

Both Pollard and Mason had doulas present during childbirth and said they gave them some relief. But mostly, they remember that their deliveries were emotionally gut-wrenching.

Autumn Mason with her children King, top left, Reign, bottom left, Raven and Reality, bottom right.
Autumn Mason with her children King, top left, Reign, bottom left, Raven and Reality, bottom right. Reality, 7, was born in prison.Courtesy Autumn Mason

Mason was seven months pregnant when she was arrested for criminal vehicular operation. “I come from a breastfeeding family,” said Mason, who was stunned to find out she wouldn’t even be able to ship her baby breast milk. “I would call to talk to my mom and hear her crying, and my breasts would start leaking. It was a horrible feeling.”

She found out later that she had an engorged milk duct that needed medical attention. Meanwhile, her newborn daughter developed gastrointestinal issues.

“She couldn’t tolerate [regular] milk. ... She did not have any problems during the short time she received breast milk,” Mason said.

Over the years, the Minnesota Prison Doula Project conducted sessions with women to find out what other care and support they needed.

“This piece of legislation grew out of about 10 years of work at the prison,” said Rebecca Shlafer, the project's research director.

Shlafer and Schnell said the factor that helped make the legislation a reality is that more women — many of whom are mothers — are involved in state government.   

“The act was carried and lifted by women legislators,” Schnell said. “It was the first time in Minnesota history we had an all-women bill.”

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn led the charge for the legislation, which she hopes will “end multigenerational trauma” caused by incarceration. A record 35 women co-sponsored the act.

“I’m Indigenous,” said Becker-Finn, who is a member of the Leech Lake Ojibwe Nation. “I am one of very few Native people to serve. I’m very aware that in Minnesota — and I believe in the country — the rate of incarceration for women is very high and that the rate for Indigenous women is even higher.”

Becker-Finn cited the involvement of other women of color, like Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Corrections Department staffer Safia Kahn, as being “very instrumental.”

Before the Healthy Start Act was created, Becker-Finn and other officials toured Shakopee and listened to women talk about their experiences of being incarcerated. The officials, most of them women, were haunted by the testimonies of the incarcerated mothers who spoke about being separated from their newborns.

“Every time I thought about it, the cruelty hit me,” said Becker-Finn, who has two elementary school-age children. “It struck a chord. We learned that most of these women would have been released in the next six months anyway. I can’t imagine how devastating it is for that mother to see the baby again and the baby doesn’t know who you are.”

Natalie Pollard was one of the women incarcerated at Shakopee who told the visiting legislators and other officials about her story of childbirth.

Pollard said that in jail immediately after her arrest, she had to scrounge to get snacks. “I had a lot of hunger,” she said. “I had to get snacks from the vending machines and sneak them into my cell, or it would be 12 to 15 hours before I could eat again.”

In prison, it took her some time to convince guards that she was actually in active delivery, which caused her a lot of anxiety. Then she was handcuffed to her wheelchair to be transported to the hospital. Pollard said that because of confusion over procedure, it took more time before a nurse called her doula, who barely made it to the hospital in time for her delivery. She had her son in the early hours of a Sunday, and the prison wanted to transport her back to the facility Monday afternoon.

“They said they wanted to get me back before a shift change. But I insisted we wait until a family member came to pick up my baby from the nursery,” Pollard said.

She recalls being exhausted from the anxiety and childbirth and from having to fight for herself and her baby to get the care she wanted. She thought that, because she was with guards the entire time she was out of the prison, she would be able to go straight to bed and get some rest when she returned to Shakopee.

Instead, she said, she was humiliated by a search.

“They made me strip search,” Pollard said. “They put a bed pad on the floor, made me step on it and squat and cough after giving birth to a baby I had to give up.”

Next, she had to go to the medical unit to answer questions about her mental state. She begged to go to bed, reassuring everyone that she was fine mentally.

But really, she felt empty. “I didn’t have a baby. I couldn’t make a phone call. I had separation anxiety. I didn’t get to kiss my baby or talk to him. I didn’t get to see the other kids when they saw him,” she said.

She told her mother to bring her son to visit only after he had had his first inoculation shots. He was 3 months old when Pollard saw him again.

Autumn Mason.
Autumn Mason.Courtesy Autumn Mason

Today, Mason and Pollard are still dealing with challenges caused by their separations from their children.

“I love him, but how do you connect with a kid you didn’t raise?” asked Pollard, whose children, including the son born in prison, live with her parents. “I love him. But he’s also a product of my abuser. ... This isn’t a quick process. It’s like therapy for me when I spend time with him. He knows finally the difference between Mommy and Grandmommy.”

Mason was released in 2016 and now works as a peer support specialist with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which helped her. She said her “daughter still has attachment issues.”

Pollard was happy to have the chance to tell the visiting legislators her story.

“I testified on behalf of women who were not able to speak,” said Pollard, who witnessed the passing of the Healthy Start Act virtually. “It was more than a dream come true, to know moving forward no mother has to endure this.”

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