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Incarcerated mom stays connected with baby through jail project

Crow Wing County Jail changes the way it does business to help inmate who delivered her baby while in custody. The jail works with doulas involved in the Minnesota Prison Doula Project.

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Shari Olson (left), a doula with Crow Wing County and the Minnesota Prison Doula Project smiles as Crow Wing County inmate Ashley Rae Garmaker tells her story Oct. 15 in the Crow Wing County Jail. Garmaker was five months pregnant when she was arrested. She delivered a healthy baby girl and has been providing breast milk to the newborn. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Ashley Rae Garmaker -- who was five months pregnant when she was arrested -- didn’t think she would land back in the Crow Wing County Jail for controlled substance crimes.

But she did.

The 31-year-old, who was booked into jail in March, went into labor July 21. She was transported to Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, where she delivered her healthy baby girl, Layla. Garmaker was given 48 hours after the birth to spend time with her newborn before she had to go back to her jail cell.

Garmaker said she stayed awake for the entire 48 hours so she could spend every second with her baby. In the final moments, she was heartbroken. She had to say goodbye to her newborn. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hold her or see her every day when she was back in jail. She also wouldn’t be able to create that bond by breastfeeding her baby like she did for her first born -- now age 8.

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A recent photo of Layla, Ashley Rae Garmaker's baby. Garmaker was five months pregnant when she was arrested and placed in custody at the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd. She gave birth to Layla on July 21 and continues to be in custody. Submitted Photo

“I couldn’t get it in my brain that I wouldn’t be able to keep the baby,” Garmaker said during an approved jail visit earlier this month. Garmaker did not lose custody of her child, and her aunt is raising Layla while Garmaker is in jail.

It’s unknown how much longer Garmaker will be in jail, because the charges against her are still pending in court. Garmaker is facing three counts of felony first-degree sales of methamphetamine and two counts of first-degree possession of methamphetamine. The charges against Garmaker came after authorities executed a search warrant May 19, 2018, at a condo in Breezy Point and at the AmericInn in Baxter, where Garmaker was renting a room. Authorities seized more than 50 grams of drugs in the case that involved Garmaker and a St. Cloud man.

Even though Garmaker is facing serious drug charges, there is a baby involved who is not guilty of her mother’s crimes. Research shows separation can have a lasting impact between a child and mother. And the administrators at the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office and the Crow Wing County Jail know this and did something about it.

“I was in shock,” Garmaker said when she learned what the sheriff’s office did for her and for any future pregnant inmates who might have their baby while in custody. She was given the go-ahead for contact visits with her baby -- meaning she can hold and touch her baby during scheduled jail visits. Typically, the jail only allows inmates to have visits through a computer screen -- no contact visits.

Garmaker is also allowed to pump breast milk for her baby.

Changing policies at the Crow Wing County Jail to accommodate pregnant inmates who will deliver their baby while in custody came when the administrators began to think differently.

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“No one likes change,” said Darnel Carlson, assistant jail administrator. “But our staff was so receptive and there have been no complaints.”

Carlson said years ago officials reached out to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, which is the state’s only women’s prison, to see what other facilities were doing with inmates who were pregnant or giving birth while in custody. In 2010, the Minnesota Prison Doula Project was launched in the Twin Cities metro area to provide support and education to pregnant and parenting inmates at the Shakopee prison. The programs began to expand to county facilities in the metro area in 2013 and then into regional centers and rural counties across Greater Minnesota, including Crow Wing and Cass counties in 2016.

Shari Olson, a doula with Luna Women's Wellness and Birth Center and with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, worked with Garmaker before and after her pregnancy. A doula is a non-medical person who provides continuous physical and emotional support during labor and birth. The doulas involved in this project also meet with female inmates to access their pregnancy needs and offer parenting classes.

“The classes were well attended,” Carlson said. The county started bringing in doulas in 2017. “But it really started with Ashley (Garmaker). … We’ve had many pregnant women in custody, but they left the jail before they delivered their baby. Ashley remains in custody and based on her charges it appears there will be a length of time of separation between her and her baby.”

Carlson said Olson was instrumental in helping jail and sheriff administrators come up with a plan to assist inmates who would be in custody through their delivery. Carlson said Olson approached them about allowing Garmaker to pump her breast milk.

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Ashley Rae Garmaker kisses her newborn baby Layla while in a hospital bed at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. Garmaker was five months pregnant when she was arrested and placed in custody at the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd. She gave birth to Layla on July 21 and continues to be in custody. Submitted Photo

“Our first reaction was no,” Carlson said. “We were worried about liability and no one else was doing it. Shari (Olson) then did the research and found that Ramsey County was doing some on a case by case basis.

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“Ashley was instrumental in changing our minds. We met with Shari and she explained how important breast milk is for the baby. ... Shari helped us think about what is important, the baby. We went back and forth for awhile and then I said we have to stop (thinking about how we used to do things) because we are making a decision and we don’t know what Ashley wants. So we talked to Ashley and she explained to us what it meant to her to provide breast milk for her baby. That changed my thinking.”

It also changed the way Troy Schilling, the jail operator, thought.

“She felt powerless being in jail and that there was nothing she could do to provide for her baby,” Schilling said. “This was one thing she could provide for her child, and that really struck a chord with me. I have five children of my own and as a parent it gave me a different mindset and I could relate to her.”

Carlson contacted the Crow Wing County attorney and sheriff about the policy changes and they both supported it. The jail has only housed two female inmates in custody during the birth of their child since the new jail opened 12 years ago.

Sheriff Scott Goddard said when the jail approached him about the policy changes, there was no question he would support them. Goddard said research shows how the human touch between a mother and baby is important, as well as feeding a baby breast milk.

“The statistics are out there and we want everyone to succeed here,” Goddard said. “Not only Ashley, as the mom, but the infant and bringing the family back together. … We, oftentimes, are not dealing with the funnest topics here in jail. We are dealing oftentimes with people who are at their lowest point. To reach that one little burst of light and opportunity to do something new and improved is kudos to everyone involved. … We had to get out of the mindset of, ‘This is how we always do business.’”

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Shari Olson, a doula with Crow Wing County and with the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, holds Ashley Rae Garmaker's baby, Layla. Olson assisted Garmaker with doula services, as well as parenting classes while she was in custody at the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd. Submitted Photo

County officials changed their mindset and encourage others to do the same.

“There is always the thought that (Garmaker) did something she shouldn’t have and she is in jail now,” Carlson said. “And that is on her, and if she wasn’t worried about the baby before why would she care now? That mindset of people -- we really had to step out of our comfort zone. The difference in Ashley was immediate. When I told her to go ahead and do the breastfeeding, everything changed.”

Schilling said he also saw an impact on other female inmates in the housing unit.

“They have a lot of depressing stories to tell each other,” Schilling said. “They are dealing with their own problems, and this can be a negative environment. So when you can bring in something positive -- it brings up the spirits of the entire unit. We saw less issues with the females. I don’t know if it was a coincidence or what, but they are more positive about things.”

With this all being said, Goddard added, the Brainerd jail is known as one of the stricter jails in the state and the sheriff’s office will continue to hold people accountable for their actions and enforce the rules.

At the jail, Olson teaches a mother and baby class, offers peer counseling and helps any woman who is pregnant sign up for doula services. She helps women with prenatal education and supports them through pregnancy, labor, delivery and postpartum.

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Ashley Rae Garmaker holds her baby, Layla, during a visit at the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd. Submitted Photo

Olson, who joined the Minnesota Prison Doula Project in 2017 and has worked at the birthing center at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd for three years, said she never thought she would become a jail doula.

“This was not something I went out looking for, it found me,” Olson said. “I wasn’t supposed to be part of this program. The people who did it couldn’t commit the time to it and I was like, ‘Sure, I guess.’ I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this. I felt like everything was black and white and they should be in jail. And then I started to do the work and I fell in love with it. Some people say your calling finds you throughout your life and my calling found me. This work has been the most impactful work I’ve ever done in my life.”

Garmaker is appreciative for all that Olson and all other jail administrators have done for her.

“They all made this possible for me and I wouldn’t pick anyone else to do it,” Garmaker said.

“They allow contact visits and I can see her for an hour twice a month, so that helps.”

When asked what Olson has taught her, Garmaker said, “That I am a very strong person. That she doesn’t know where I get my strength from. She taught me to enjoy the moment.”

Garmaker said having the contact visits with her baby has helped her get through her days. She said her aunt lives on the Iron Range with her baby. Her aunt shares photos with her so she can see how big the baby is getting.

“It’s amazing to hold her and see her and I can’t believe how much she changes in like two weeks,” Garmaker said of Layla. “It’s like I’m missing out ... but I still get to see her. I am very grateful for the visits, for them to accommodate the contact visits.”

Minnesota Prison Doula Project rationale

  • 46,000 women and girls are arrested in Minnesota each year. Six to 10% are pregnant at the time of their arrest. A majority of them have children.

  • One in 6 children in Minnesota have experienced incarceration of a parent or guardian. There are more problems in school, mental and physical health concerns and substance abuse.

  • When incarcerated women receive doula services: 10% of babies were born via cesarean section, compared to Minnesota’s cesarean section rate of 32.7%.

  • There is a reduction in premature births and low birth weights and in the newborn intensive care unit care.

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTY JAIL
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