Keeping families strong throughout incarceration

Rebecca Shlafer

Masonic beneficiary works to give children with incarcerated parents every chance for success

From birth to adolescence, young people do best when they have a strong foundation of family support.

But what happens to kids when their parents are jailed? And what steps can be taken to give them every chance for success?

Thanks to the work of U pediatrics faculty member and Masonic Early Investigator Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., M.P.H, we are now better equipped to address these questions and, ultimately, change lives.

Illuminating the problem

Shlafer says her biggest success as a researcher has been “defining and describing” the scope and impact of parental incarceration in Minnesota—data that has never been collected systematically.

Because of the work of Shlafer and her team, who surveyed more than 2,600 participants in Minnesota county jails, we now know that 67 percent of men and 77 percent of women in prisons statewide have children under the age of 18.

We also know that infants miss out on forming critical bonds when their moms are in jail. And that the one in six Minnesota youth who have had an incarcerated parent are more likely to deal with issues ranging from poor school performance to chemical dependency, depression, and increased risk for suicide.

Armed with this information, Shlafer and her colleagues are using their findings to give kids with incarcerated parents every chance for success.

“Most incarcerated moms and dads get out of prison and go back to parenting their children,” she says. “We want to help them keep bonds strong so that their relationship is as healthy as possible when they get out.”

Forging the earliest bonds

When a woman is pregnant, the choices she makes—from diet and exercise to travel and work—can have long-term effects on the health of her child. But as Shlafer and her team learned early on, the odds were stacked against women who entered correctional facilities pregnant.

“When we first began our research, we learned that pregnant women in prison were going it alone, lacking prenatal education and the ability to connect with others for support,” Shlafer says.

During labor and delivery, the only people allowed in hospital rooms were correctional officers. Many women were shackled to their beds. Even those who had C-sections were subjected to belly chains and lockboxes after giving birth, Shlafer notes. New moms did not receive postpartum or parenting support and were not allowed to maintain their milk supply for future nursing.

In light of these discoveries, Shlafer led a legislative advisory committee that resulted in policies that have “radically changed how correctional facilities treat pregnant women.”

With the passage of an anti-shackling law in 2014, Minnesota became the 20th state to outlaw the use of restraints during and just after childbirth and the first state to guarantee inmates access to birth coaches, called doulas. In addition, new moms are now allowed to use a breast pump to maintain milk production, enabling them to breastfeed after leaving prison.

Shlafer’s research also strengthened the work of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which provides pregnancy and parenting education to incarcerated women around the state by matching pregnant inmates with doulas.

“Our work has opened up a window to discussing the needs of pregnant incarcerated women in a way that was never discussed before, leading to some amazing comprehensive changes,” says Shlafer.

Click here for more on how the Minnesota Doula project is gaining international attention on the BBC website.

Learn more about this work on the Star-Tribune website.

Maintaining focus on later childhood

In addition to building a healthy foundation for babies, Shlafer’s team also focuses on helping older children with parents who have been or are currently incarcerated.

Shlafer is especially proud of research her team led with the University of Wisconsin–Madison on the experiences of children who visit their parents in jail. After collecting extensive data from four jails, they created guidelines on how correctional facilities can make children’s visiting experiences as enriching as possible—from making physical spaces more welcoming to changing visiting hours and training correctional officers.

They recently helped the Washington County Jail implement these changes and are now exploring ways to make improvements in correctional facilities across the state.

Shlafer and her colleagues also measure the impact of parental incarceration through the Minnesota Student Survey, which collects an array of data on fifth, eighth, ninth, and eleventh graders. They are now working to share their latest findings with stakeholders like teachers, school administrators, and mental health experts to heighten awareness of specific issues and spark conversations about solutions.

The impact of donor support

A significant motivator for Shlafer has been funding from the Minnesota Masons, which she credits with helping to launch her career.

When she first started as a faculty member, she was finishing her postdoctoral studies, and research start-up funds were limited. Now, thanks to Masonic support, Shlafer has been able to spend the majority of her time building and running a robust, multifaceted research program.

“I think of this funding as the engine revving at the start of a runway,” she says. “It has enabled me to launch my career and a research effort that has been critical to our state.”

Becoming a mom during incarceration—then and now

Thanks to work led by Shlafer and the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, pregnant women in prison now have better support before and after their child is born. Improvements include:

Prenatal support

  • Prenatal education and support groups
  • Pregnancy and birth coaching with trained doulas

Labor and delivery

  • No restraints allowed in hospital beds during and after labor and delivery
  • Doula allowed in hospital room

Postnatal support

  • Support after separation from newborn
  • Ability to pump and maintain breastmilk production for future nursing
  • Postnatal education and support groups


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