Pregnant inmates may get law change

The bill aims to raise the standard of life for pregnant women in Minnesota jails.

Jessie Bekker

A group of experts is working to make life easier for pregnant women in jails and prisons.

A legislative advisory committee will present an amended bill to the Legislature this session that aims to raise the standard of care provided to incarcerated pregnant women.

The measure would clarify language of a similar law passed last spring aiming to ensure incarcerated pregnant women receive the same standard of care that they would get outside of jail or prison.

Many incarcerated pregnant women have high-risk pregnancies, said Wendy Hellerstedt, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and member of the advisory committee.

Examples of changes the bill aims to make include a special cuffing style for pregnant women, requiring correctional officers to file a report when they handcuff pregnant women and more closely mandated pregnancy testing. It also includes language pertaining to postpartum women.

The bill would require pregnant women be cuffed differently from other inmates so that if they fall, they can more easily catch themselves.

The tightened language also requires women to undergo pregnancy testing after they’re put in a jail or prison. This year’s bill would require that women be tested on or before the 14th day of incarceration.

The 23-member committee comprises University professors, correctional officials, other experts and legal aids — a component the first law lacked.

Sara Benning, director for outreach and communications in the University’s Center for Leadership Education in Maternal and Child Public Health and committee member, credits the bill’s completion to the experts who helped to create it.

“If this group hadn’t come together, I’m not sure that the recommendations that had been made would’ve happened,” she said.

The bill doesn’t, however, include ideas for sources of funding, said Jessica Anderson, legislative affairs and communications director for the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota and committee member.

Still, committee members are confident the bill will pass because last year’s measure became law unanimously.

The bill will proceed through the House Judiciary Committee before continuing to the Senate, said Rebecca Shlafer, chair of the legislative advisory committee and an assistant professor in the University Medical School’s pediatrics department. She said she hopes to see the bill progress through the Legislature by March.

Shlafer said the expert voices helped generate a more meaningful bill. She said she believes the proposed changes are minimal.

“Ultimately, I feel like this is a better bill than what was put in place last year,” she said. “It represents those diverse stakeholders’ perspectives and reflects the realities of both the prison and the jails, and women’s needs in those facilities.”