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Minnesota aims to stop separating mothers in prison from their newborn babies


When an incarcerated woman gives birth, she is typically separated from her baby within days or even hours. The state of Minnesota now allows some of these moms to spend more time at home with their new babies. Alisa Roth has this report.

ALISA ROTH, BYLINE: When Victoria Lopez went into labor, she was in jail in southern Minnesota, waiting to get sent to prison on drug charges. Her twin girls were delivered by emergency C-section. And when they got taken to the NICU at another hospital, Lopez wasn't allowed to go.

VICTORIA LOPEZ: So I had to say goodbye to my daughters, and I didn't know when I'd see them again. And I sat there in that room alone - well, not alone. I had the guards with me.

ROTH: She was in that room when she got a call from the parenting coordinator at the prison. Lopez remembers the woman telling her...

LOPEZ: Due to your situation with the twins needing NICU and extra care, we'd like to put you in this program.

ROTH: The program is Healthy Start, which lets incarcerated women stay home with their babies for up to a year. Safia Khan is deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which oversees Healthy Start.

SAFIA KHAN: The idea was, how do we prevent that separation from happening at a very critical time for the development of that newborn baby and to allow for that mother-child bond?


LOPEZ: Where are you going?

ROTH: Victoria Lopez's Facebook page is filled with pictures and videos that illustrate that bond - her cooing to a tiny baby in a bouncy chair and talking to them as they crawl around. A handful of states, including Indiana and Washington, have nurseries that let incarcerated mothers keep their babies with them inside prison. But Minnesota lets women stay home with their child. All pregnant and recently postpartum women who come into the state's prison system are considered eligible. So far, 38 women have qualified, though only 12 have been accepted. Women can be rejected if their sentences are too long or if their parental rights have been terminated, among other reasons. The Department of Corrections is trying to make it more accessible, but there's a far bigger question - why these women are getting caught up in the criminal legal system to begin with.

REBECCA SHLAFER: For me, the most important and critical piece of this puzzle is just how complicated these families and circumstances are.

ROTH: Rebecca Shlafer is a professor at the University of Minnesota whose work focuses on families and incarceration. She's currently evaluating the project for the Department of Corrections.

SHLAFER: We need to move upstream to earlier interventions and earlier investments in maternal and child health as a crime prevention strategy so that we are not at the end of a line here saying, how do we solve all of these really complex social problems with one intervention called the Healthy Start Act?

ROTH: Because there will always be complicated situations like Victoria Lopez's. Soon after she was arrested, Lopez started substance use treatment. She got a job and enrolled in community college. But the judge sentenced her to 88 months in prison anyway, so the Department of Corrections legally can't let her stay out any longer. Lopez started her sentence just days after her twins turned 1. She's currently appealing the decision. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Roth in St. Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEX'S "GET IN YR SQUADS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alisa Roth