Pregnancy is something that each individual woman experiences differently. It’s a time of physiological changes, months of anticipation, planning and preparation. However, for women who are serving time behind bars, it can be a very isolating experience. There is a stigma around women who have been convicted of crimes, and their needs are often overlooked while they are serving a sentence. The women of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project are on a mission to advocate and support this underserved population.

The Minnesota Prison Doula Project started in 2006 with a mission to provide pregnancy and parenting support for incarcerated women. They provide birth support from trained doulas, as well as group-based and individual education and support to pregnant women and mothers. The goal is to nurture healthy mother-child relationships and increase parenting confidence and skills. Currently there are seven sites in Minnesota and one in Alabama. They have been working under the University of Minnesota Foundation, but will soon be launching their own independent nonprofit organization called The Ostarra Initiative.

NMF granted the prison doula project $20,000 to partner with the Beltrami County Jail and Beltrami County Health and Human Services to create pregnancy and parenting education and support for incarcerated women and girls. The program offers weekly individual and group-based learning opportunities that are evidence-informed and have been proven effective with incarcerated mothers in other regions of Minnesota. Beltrami County is unique in that about 90% of its female inmates are Native American.

Emily Lindell is the doula who works in partnership with the Prison Doula Project in Beltrami County. She goes to the Beltrami County jail every Monday and Friday with Jenny Greenleaf who works as a mentor with the Prison Doula Project. On Mondays, Emily and Jenny hold one-on-one meetings with inmates, and on Fridays they lead a small group about parenting. Although they only see 2-4 women at a time, these women show up weekly and look forward to sharing their feelings and experiences with the community they are creating together.

“This is a starting point to support women, and break the cycle of addiction” says Jenny, “I don’t think these women realize that we are just as grateful for them as they are for us.”

Every inmate’s experience is different and complex. Many of these women are victims of their circumstances; they are vulnerable to abuse, poverty and addiction. In order to uplift these women and help create a new path for themselves and their children, it’s important to meet them where they’re at, and provide them with resources and a sense of hope. When these new mothers feel empowered, they’re more likely to nurture their children into healthy and responsible young men and women. What happens in the home makes a dramatic impact on the trajectory of a child’s life, and the Minnesota Prison Doula Project believes healthy children are raised by empowered mothers.

“We are so proud of the work Emily and Jenny are doing with this group at the Beltrami County jail,” says founder of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, Erica Gerrity, “we will be directing more resources to their program because their work in this region is so needed.”

L to R: Nate Dorr, Raelene Baker, Erica Gerrity, Jenny Greenleaf, and Emily Lindell