SHAKOPEE, Minn. - When prison inmates start counting down the days, they are typically getting close to their release dates.
But at a weekly gathering at Shakopee state prison for women, inmates are just as likely to be counting down to due dates.
"It was definitely a surprise," says Ashley Micheln, who arrived at the prison pregnant after her conviction for credit card fraud.
At any given time, roughly 10 women at the prison are pregnant. Currently, there are 14 expectant mothers among a prison population of more than 650 women.
Up until a few years ago, prison births could be a rather isolating experience -- a trip to St. Francis Hospital with two corrections officers, but no family.
That changed with the launch of a program that assigns pregnant inmates a doula.
The doula, a sort of birth coach, helps an inmate make healthy decisions during her pregnancy. The doula is also in the delivery room to offer support; then back two days later when the baby is separated from the mother who is shackled and taken back to the prison.
Rebecca Shlafer Ph.D. is a University of Minnesota professor doing research on Minnesota's privately funded doula program, called Isis Rising. She says even people with little sympathy for the pregnant inmates should find merit in the program.
"If we can have healthier labor and deliveries, we have the potential to save taxpayers money," said Shlafer, citing vastly reduced c-section rates since the doula program started.
Shlafer also believes her research will show the doulas involvement in prenatal education reduces stress on the mother and therefore the child. In more than three dozen deliveries since the prison doula program started, not one low birth-weight baby has been delivered.
"Putting aside the fact this mom has committed x, y or z crime, all of the children in this are completely innocent," said Shlafer.
She believes Minnesota's doula program could eventually serve as a model for other states.
The ultimate goal would be healthy, well adjusted moms, who don't come back to prison. Micheln, who also has a 3-year-old son, would like to put herself in that category.
"I believe this is my chance," she said. "I'm going to have another kid. I need to get it together."
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