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MN First State to Ban Infant Separation in Prisons

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Wednesday, July 14, 2021   

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In a few weeks, Minnesota will become the first state to end the practice of separating newborns from mothers held in prison.

On Aug. 1, the Department of Corrections will shift to placing the child and mother into community alternative settings, such as halfway houses. In Minnesota, the department said, 278 pregnant women were sentenced to prison between 2013 and 2020, most for nonviolent offenses.

Deb Fitzpatrick. policy and legislative affairs director of the Children's Defense Fund Minnesota, said her group was happy to see the policy eliminated. She said she sees it as part of a broader push in the legislative session to ensure all Minnesota infants have better outcomes.

"It shouldn't matter what your ZIP Code is or what your race is," she said. "If you're a baby, you need to get a good start in life."

She also cited an expansion of health coverage to mothers for a full year after the birth of a child. But Fitzpatrick said lawmakers missed some opportunities, such as a paid family-leave program. The infant separation change received broad bipartisan support, with backers noting the old policy is stressful for both infant and mother - and that it serves little purpose, with the median prison stay for a pregnant person in Minnesota at just under five months.

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, played a key role in crafting the legislation. She said the separation policy had been especially cruel, as it added to the racial gaps experienced by women within the correctional system.

"Disproportionately, we have Native women and women of color who are incarcerated," she said, "and then we're doing this practice that kind of exacts this trauma on multiple generations."

Researchers have noted that separation from their babies can make incarcerated mothers more vulnerable to mental-health issues, such as post-partum depression, and affect the child's development as well. Other states have similar programs, but they involve the baby residing at the prison with their mom - which Becker-Finn said lawmakers wanted to avoid.

Disclosure: Children's Defense Fund- Minnesota Chapter contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy & Priorities, Children's Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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