U professor’s research impacts treatment of incarcerated women

Research from U Professor Rebecca Shlafer led to Minnesota’s first anti-shackling law and the use of doulas at Minnesota prisons.

Rilyn Eischens

From anti-shackling legislation to visiting room improvements, a University of Minnesota professor’s research team is changing the way women are treated in state prisons.

Department of Pediatrics Assistant Professor Rebecca Shlafer’s research focuses on incarcerated women and their children. She has conducted a number of studies and projects that have altered the way Minnesota prisons function and serve as models for other states.

“We incarcerate more people in this country than any other country in the world per capita,” Shlafer said. “It’s crippling our communities and, to me, that becomes really important when we think about children, families and communities.”

Child-friendly visits

Shlafer’s lab recently finished a study examining how incarcerated mothers and their children responded to extended visits at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, Minnesota’s only female prison. These were different from normal visits because they included kid-friendly activities, Shlafer said.

Mothers and kids liked the system, but it was difficult for the prison officials, she said. It required increased security because it happened in the protected area of the facility, farther inside than the normal visiting area, she said.

The study led to talks about how to make standard visiting spaces in Minnesota’s correctional facilities more child-friendly, she said.

“There’s sort of an outdated belief that we don’t want to make prisons too nice because then people will want to come here,” said MCF-Shakopee official Lori Timlin. “Well, they don’t.”

Visiting rules apply equally to adults and children, Timlin said. People have to sit at a table and can’t touch, move around or bring anything with them, she said.

“That’s very difficult for kids when you can’t touch or kiss your parents,” Shlafer said. “These environments are often very sterile. They don’t have books and they don’t have toys.”

Shlafer said she worked with corrections administrators to see what could make the spaces child-friendly while keeping them safe and secure.

As a result, they’ve painted the prison’s visiting room walls and put out toys and books, Timlin said.

“That … humanizes a place,” said Tiffany Hamidjaja, a University senior who’s worked in Shlafer’s lab for almost two years. “It’s meant to be cold … but okay, [the kids] can see there’s an electric fence. I think that makes them scared enough.”

Officials in Shakopee are also looking at a number of other changes to visiting procedures after Shlafer’s recommendations.

All visitors have to go through a metal detector, Timlin said. They are planning to shoot a video of the process from a child’s point of view so that it’s less frightening.

Additionally, children are now allowed to use a staff restroom inside the visiting area so their visits aren’t cut short if they have to use the bathroom outside the protected area, she said.

Anti-shackling legislation

In 2013, Shlafer led a study that analyzed national “anti-shackling laws” that forbade the restraint of pregnant inmates. The goal was to find a model policy to use in Minnesota because the state didn’t have any such legislation at the time.

It was common to shackle pregnant inmates in Minnesota with leg irons, belly chains and handcuffs, Shlafer said. Those practices could harm mothers and babies by increasing risk of injury and miscarriage, according to her study.

In response to Shlafer’s research and the recommendations of a legislative advisory committee that she chaired, the Minnesota legislature passed a law forbidding the restraint of pregnant inmates in 2014.

There was considerable opposition from corrections officers, Shlafer said, because they found the idea of not restraining an inmate out in public troubling.

“A 9-month pregnant woman … the first thing she’s thinking about while giving birth isn’t, ‘How am I going to run out of here?’” she said. “But anytime you have an inmate who’s not restrained, those [security] concerns become paramount.”

These triumphs show that the team’s work leads to real-life changes, said Hamidjaja, the undergraduate researcher.

“It’s quite a feat … to have someone take your science seriously and to know that it impacts lives, to actually have government be like, ‘Okay, yeah, this is something we need to deal with,’” she said.

Pregnancy support

Shlafer is the lead researcher for the Minnesota Prison Doula Project (MnPDP), a 5-year-old partnership with MCF-Shakopee that sends doulas – professionals trained to assist women before, during and after childbirth — to the facility.

Other states have modeled their programs after MnPDP, Shlafer said. A group from Illinois will travel to Minnesota in January in hopes of creating a doula project, and one in Maryland recently started as well, she said. Shlafer said her team went to Alabama in 2015 to implement a similar pre-natal education program.

The doula project has been life-changing for women at the prison, Timlin, the MCF-Shakopee official, said.

Since MnPDP was launched, there have been fewer complications during these pregnancies and a drop in C-sections, she said.

Doulas meet with inmates at least twice during a pregnancy to develop a relationship and provide support and health information, Timlin said.

“Because the doula is not a correctional person, there’s less risk for the women in asking questions,” she said. “It’s just a much more personal contact.”

They also lead the new moms group at the prison, facilitate the separation process when mothers return to the prison without their babies and check in with inmates post-partum, Timlin said.

“Every woman has the option of working with a doula … and sometimes they’ll go, ‘Eh, I’m not sure,’ but after they’ve talked to other people in our prison community, invariably they say they want a doula,” she said.

When an inmate goes into labor, her doula is called and stays with her at the hospital throughout the process, Timlin said.

Incarcerated individuals aren’t permitted to have family or friends accompany them to the hospital when they receive medical care, which can be especially difficult during childbirth, Timlin said.

“We as staff cannot have physical contact with inmates. We have to maintain a professional boundary. It’s really a challenge to see someone in pain or afraid … and you as a professional aren’t allowed to respond to that,” she said.