By Charlotte Johnson and Beth Isaacs
On January 9, 2017, three members of the board of directors of Illinois Birth Justice, Beth Isaacs, Charlotte Johnson, and Ellen Mason, traveled to Minneapolis to meet with the founders of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project and tour two of the criminal justice facilities where they provide services to incarcerated pregnant and recently delivered mothers.
IBJ's visit to the Minnesota Prison Doula Project was an opportunity to meet a remarkable group of people who are working to make a positive difference in the lives of incarcerated pregnant women and mothers and their children.
Rebecca Shlafer, Erica Gerrity, and Raelene Baker are an amazing team. They generously shared a wealth of information and expertise. We gained insights into many aspects of their work, and we came away with a stronger understanding of the necessary steps in a prison doula project’s evolution. We saw how our Minnesota heroes have nurtured relationships, both with incarcerated women and with the corrections officials who work with them. Such partners make it possible for this important work to flourish.
A few highlights of our visit:
Conversation with the founders
The founders shared their individual contributions to the project in terms of their educational backgrounds, professional training, and experience, highlighting the collaboration and personal commitment required for the project to succeed. They also emphasized that it requires time to effect the organizational change required to develop a viable program. They cautioned against growing too fast.
Conversations with the researcher and university partner
Rebecca Shlafer, PhD, explained the partnership between the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Prison Doula Project in which the university provides valuable resources and financial support while supporting evidence-based research designed to benefit the target population and the facilities. This type of partnership would be extremely beneficial for Illinois Birth Justice as well.
Conversations with incarcerated women
While touring Shakopee, the women's prison, we were introduced to a mother who had recently given birth. She shared her experience with her doula and explained how helpful she found the services provided by the project.
Conversations with correctional officials and staff
We were impressed by the level of commitment expressed by the administrative officials at both Shakopee Prison and the Ramsey County Correctional Facility to supporting the doula services, including the support of breast milk expression. This example provides optimism as IBJ seeks to forge similar relationships with correctional facilities in Illinois.
Touring two correctional facilities
We were welcomed at both facilities and noted the mutual respect and collaboration shared between the correctional administrative officials and staff and MPDP staff. The differences between the respective facilities highlights the differences in services required in the respective facilities.
Learning about possibilities and challenges of using breast pumps in correctional facilities
While both correctional facilities provided breast pumps and afforded the women the opportunity to express their breast milk, policies and procedures varied according to the facility. Ramsey County Correctional Facility is in the process of implementing a breast milk collection and storage program. The success of these programs will serve as a guide as IBJ considers how to introduce similar programs.
Planning for ongoing communication, mentoring, and collaboration with our Minnesota heroes
The Minnesota Prison Doula Project is committed to collaborating with and mentoring other prison doula programs, sharing their learning experiences and guidance.
We are so grateful for the time that our Minnesota friends and colleagues spent with us and the pearls of wisdom that they shared. We look forward to a long and productive collaboration. Together we will make a difference!
"I have definitely seen a positive impact on the inmates and the staff since we have started using doulas. First off, when the women come here, they are typically so stressed out about their children, their pregnancy, etc. that it’s hard for them to participate in programming or focus on themselves. So, by incorporating the doulas and the parenting program, it has allowed them to resolve or start working on their emotions around their pregnancy or children left behind. And then once they start working through those emotions, it allows them to concentrate on other things like their chemical health or their own trauma. Also, the women feel so empowered by the doulas. It’s surprising how little the women know about their bodies and so, to be informed and more aware of their birthing options has been life changing for some women.
The doulas have also impacted the staff because I’m now seeing staff advocating for the women to utilize the doulas. The staff see how the women’s behavior changes for the better when they are able to utilize the doula program, so they are now telling the inmates about how great it is". Liz Reetz, Women's Unit Manager at Ramsey County Correctional Facility