Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., Department of Pediatrics, has been busy lately. After assisting with Isis Rising to help incarcerated mothers at Shakopee Women’s Prison, the Assistant Professor was part of Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration project. The initiative supports young children who have an incarcerated parent with interactive resources.
While Shlafer has been educating others about the issues surrounding incarcerated parents, last month she saw her advocacy turn into legislation. Governor Mark Dayton signed a bill that will help address the needs of incarcerated women around the periods of pregnancy and childbirth.
“I think this is a great first step, because it moves the needle for jails,” Shlafer said. “The unique health needs of incarcerated women in Minnesota have essentially been disregarded in the past.”
One issue the new legislation will address is the restraint of incarcerated pregnant women. Now, in most instances, correctional facility representatives may not restrain a woman until at least three days after giving birth. The only exception is if the representative believes “restraints are reasonably necessary,” but the addition will help improve consistency across all correctional facilities and the health of incarcerated women after childbirth.
The bill will also require the head of correctional facilities to administer pregnancy tests to all incarcerated women under 50 years of age. Pregnant women in the facility will then be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and have access to educational resources about the process of pregnancy and childbirth.
On top of that, women who are pregnant or have given birth within six weeks will be eligible for doula services and mental health assessment.
“One of our challenges in the coming years is trying to fund doula care,” Shlafer said. “This is important work that can’t be done solely by volunteers.”
A final major piece of the legislation is the formation of an advisory committee, which Shlafer will lead. Shlafer and her community partners, Erica Gerrity and Rae Baker, have already ensured better care for incarcerated pregnant women, but the work of this advisory group could take it to another level.
“My goal is to take the pulse of best practices across the country and say, ‘this is what we recommend so that Minnesota can lead the way,’” Shlafer said.