SHAKOPEE, Minn. — In a span of three days, Sarah Schalker went from giving birth to cradling her baby to losing her altogether.
As one of the 15 women who gave birth while locked up in the Shakopee prison last year, Schalker knew she would have to hand her daughter off just days after she was born. That didn’t make the gut-wrenching goodbye any easier.
After a cesarean section and three days in the St. Francis Regional Medical Center, Schalker went back to prison and her daughter, Indigo, went home without her. The baby girl with sandy-blonde hair and blue eyes would not see her mother again for six weeks, until the Minnesota Department of Corrections could approve the infant as a visitor.
“It was extremely depressing. I would cry all the time,” said Schalker, 42, who is serving an 8-year sentence for possession of methamphetamine. She sees Indigo, her only child who is now 15 months old, just a few times per month.
For decades, this experience has been the norm for women who give birth while in Minnesota prisons. Now, state corrections officials are mulling alternatives to incarceration that could keep mothers and their young children together.
The talks have been driven by years of pressure from advocates and a growing body of research that shows separation can have a lasting impact on children who are not guilty of their mother’s crimes.
“That separation of maternal-infant relationship and bond is such an insult to child development … and it has lifelong consequences for that child,” said Rebecca Shlafer, a University of Minnesota pediatrics professor and national expert on incarcerated mothers. “What are the ways in which we can make sure that justice is served without doing an injustice to the next generation?”
Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said the agency is looking at alternative release options for pregnant women and mothers of young children. The agency is working with advocates to craft a proposal that could be brought to the governor and Legislature next year, he said.
“When we look at who is pregnant in Minnesota’s prisons, the vast majority would be better served … by not having them in prison,” Schnell said, noting that most of the women are locked up for nonviolent crimes. “The goal certainly is to move this along and to find solutions where we don’t have to do separation because we know all the data about impact (on children).”
Months of waiting — for hours of joy
About 6% of the more than 660 women in the Shakopee prison, the state’s only women’s facility, are pregnant when they arrive. Most of them give birth after they are released, while one to two dozen women each year deliver their babies while incarcerated.
The prison pairs up pregnant women with doulas from the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. The birth coaches guide and support the women through their pregnancies, from providing planning and prenatal education to supporting them in the delivery room. Doulas were involved in 99 of the 130 births by Shakopee offenders from 2011 through 2018.
Doctors appointments start on a monthly basis early in the pregnancy but are scheduled every week once women reach 36 weeks. Corrections officers escort the women to off-site appointments and strip-search them upon their return.
After months of waiting, the women give birth at the St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Shakopee. For security reasons, the inmates cannot have any visitors at the hospital. Only the doctors, their doula and a guard — who is usually a woman — keep them company in the delivery room.
“Prison is not set up well for women’s medical needs,” said Lori Timlin, the DOC’s parenting coordinator who works out of the Shakopee prison.
Timlin helps pregnant inmates create a birth plan and pick a caregiver who will take their baby home from the hospital. Most often, the maternal grandmother or father will care for the child.
Schalker sent her daughter home with strangers. Through the St. Paul nonprofit Together for Good, a family volunteered to give Indigo a temporary home until Schalker’s mother could take her when she was 4 months old.
Not knowing the family made giving up Indigo all the more difficult.
Inmates get up to 72 hours with their babies after birth, with less time to recover from vaginal deliveries and more time for C-sections.
“It was like the impending doom,” Schalker said, as she fought back tears during an interview at the Shakopee prison on Wednesday. “So I just sucked it up as best as I could, got back into the orange outfit and put her in the bassinet and they wheeled her off.”
Alone and in agony
Every mom reacts to the split differently, said Raelene Baker, program director for the Prison Doula Project. It often depends on how much time they have left behind bars.
Some try to disconnect as a way to cope with the moment. Most sob as their newborns are wheeled away.
“It is very hard to witness. Most of our clients are breastfeeding and spending nearly 48 hours skin-to-skin with their baby, and nursing and bonding and just really spending that special time as every new mom does with their newborn,” Baker said.
Tasha Wilson, who is serving a five-year sentence for identity theft, gave birth to her daughter Charlee in March. She cried for hours after they were separated, until her eyes swelled shut.
Wilson did not see her daughter again for two months because Charlee’s father would not bring her to the prison until she had her shots.
“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever really done in my whole entire life,” said Wilson, 36, who also gave birth to her first daughter while locked up in Shakopee eight years ago.
That long of a wait is not unusual. Women who give birth while in prison may wait as long as six weeks to see their newborns again, because of paperwork requirements for visitation.
The paperwork cannot be filed until after the baby is born. It takes several weeks to get the birth certificate needed for the visiting application, though Timlin will waive that requirement for newborns so mothers can see them sooner.
Babies grow fast. By the time they visit their mothers, some women say it’s like meeting them all over again.
Generally, mothers in the Shakopee prison see their children during normal visits, which last a couple of hours and do not allow for much physical contact. But women in the Anthony Unit, a privileged living space for mothers who commit to being discipline-free, get to see their kids for four hours every other Saturday.
The prison sets aside two rooms and a small courtyard for the women and their kids on these days. Women can hold and feed their children during the extended visits. They play and eat lunch together and have their picture taken before the kids leave.
Still, incarcerated women and advocates for them say the sparse visits are not enough to forge a bond with young children. Schalker, who lives in the Anthony Unit, estimates that she sees Indigo seven to 10 hours per month.
Without mom, kids suffer
Studies show that children of incarcerated parents suffer on several fronts.
In the classroom, they tend to have lower grades and more absences and discipline issues. They are more likely to need therapy and suffer from long-term mental health problems. And they are more likely to use and abuse drugs and alcohol at a young age.
In her research at the University of Minnesota, Shlafer, the pediatrics professor, found that these children may also experience financial hardship, social stigma and unpredictability in their home life.
The consequences for children who are separated from their mothers as infants can be “devastating,” Shlafer said. Not only is the split traumatic, but it may hinder the child’s social, emotional and physical development.
Tonja Honsey is still dealing with her bad choices and their effect on her three children. She spent 25 years in and out of the system for a slew of drug offenses and was behind bars for parts of each of her pregnancies.
Honsey is trying to win back trust with her older children, ages 24 and 18, and her youngest child, who is 5. The 43-year-old recognizes the trauma she inflicted on them and acknowledges the pain they still feel.
“Every day is a struggle,” said Honsey, who now sits on the state sentencing guidelines commission and founded We Rise Leadership Collective, a group of formerly incarcerated women pushing for criminal justice reform. “Just because I have changed my life and am doing all these different things, that doesn’t take away their trauma from being separated from their mom.”
Looking at alternatives
Honsey is using her growing criminal-justice profile to push for systemic change.
She and other advocates want the state to end incarceration for pregnant women. They say that doing so will put an end to “intergenerational trauma” and even save tax dollars, as fewer kids will be pushed into foster care.
A handful of states have established prison nurseries as a way to keep mothers and their newborns together. Advocates say that Minnesota can do better for its relatively small population of incarcerated women.
They are kicking around two proposals that they hope to turn into legislation.
One would ask courts to consider community sentencing when an offender is the primary caregiver of a child. Ideally, Honsey said, a judge might sentence drug addicts and those with mental illness to treatment instead of prison.
The other proposal would revise state law to expand the definition of conditional medical release to include women who are pregnant. Only inmates with a grave or terminal illness can qualify for this release under current law, and they must not be deemed a threat to public safety.
Schnell, the commissioner, said he likes both ideas. The department has discussed ways to expand conditional medical release in the past, he said, and those talks are still going. Officials are looking at what other states have done as they try to come up with their own legislative proposal for pregnant women.
“We’re working right now on what policy could look like and we’ll ultimately be submitting that to the governor and framing that up,” Schnell said, adding that he thinks the notion of keeping mothers with their children aligns with the philosophy of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz.
Wilson wishes there was a better option than prison, though she makes no excuse for her actions. Her 8-year-old daughter, who she refers to as her “best friend,” has needed therapy to cope with their separation.
“Do I think there needs to be a better way to do this? Absolutely. But some of the responsibility still falls on myself,” Wilson said. “It’s almost criminal in itself what we do to our children by leaving them out there.”