In November 2022, Victoria Lopez went into early labor in a Minnesota jail cell. Like most incarcerated parents, she thought she’d have to say goodbye to her newborn twins just hours after giving birth. But Lopez was lucky. Before she went to prison to serve seven years and four months, she was enrolled in a new state program designed to maintain the bond between infants and their mothers. Under the Healthy Start Act passed in 2021, Lopez can spend up to a year at home with her twins and her other two children.
But Lopez, 35, isn’t the typical participant. The majority of pregnant people enrolled are serving short sentences, and will give birth within a year of the end of their sentence. After these participants deliver their babies, they can finish up to the last year of their sentence with their newborns under community supervision. Successful participants get to remain home with their children once they complete their program requirements.
Lopez is scheduled to go to prison in less than four months. Here, she reflects on both the joy of spending time with her twins and the inevitable trauma of separation.
When my twin girls turn 1 in November, I am scheduled to report to a Minnesota state prison. Every day, I wake up with a checklist in my head: This is what I have to do: I need to save money. I need to buy clothing as they get bigger. I need to… But there is really no way for me to prepare to leave my girls, their almost 2-year-old brother and my 18-year-old daughter.
My current legal troubles began in 2020 when I was arrested for selling drugs. Before this incident, I’d been sober for years. But when my oldest daughter was put in a group home for getting into some trouble, I lost myself. I relapsed, and that got me into a whole mess of trouble.
My court date kept getting pushed back because of the pandemic. So during the two years that I was out on bail, I was bettering myself. I put myself in drug treatment and I went back to college.
My success couldn’t change the fact that I was facing 10 years in prison. That’s why I said yes when the prosecutor offered me a plea deal that would cut that time down to about seven years. The deal also gave the judge the possibility of sentencing me to less time.
When I finally saw the judge in November 2022 to be officially sentenced, I was about 8 ½ months pregnant with the twins. My son, then 1, was sitting with me in the front row of the courtroom. My oldest daughter and the rest of my family were there, too. I had over 50 letters of support from the community saying, “We believe she belongs in the community and not in prison.”
The judge disagreed. I remember him looking at me and saying my growth was “just not enough.” He brought up a felony drug conviction I had from over a decade ago, and said he didn’t feel like there was enough remorse in my tone. Then he gave me seven years and four months in prison. I had to turn myself in immediately.
I thought things would go differently. Everyone, including my lawyer, thought the judge was going to let me serve my sentence out on probation. He had seen my family grow over the last year. He knew I was working on bettering myself.
“Can I at least say goodbye to my family?” I asked.
“No,” said a court deputy. “Turn around and face the wall and go right into that room.”
After about 15 minutes in a holding cell attached to the courtroom, I was taken to another holding cell in Freeborn County Jail. That’s where I started bleeding at about 6:30 p.m. All I could think was: Oh my God, I am going to have these babies, and they are going to be taken from me, and I am never going to see them for a long time. I didn’t have anything arranged for my other children because I didn’t expect to go to prison_._
I pushed the buzzer on the wall of my cell to let the guards know something was wrong. They told me it would be a minute, and I replied, “No, something is wrong! I am bleeding!” When the nurse finally came in, after about 30 minutes, she dismissed me. “Oh, this is a get out of jail free card?” I remember her asking.
I pulled my pants down to show her the blood. “Does it look like it?”
I must have been the first pregnant person to go into labor in the jail in a long time, because they didn’t seem to have any real guidelines or plans. The nurse told me the best she could do was take my blood pressure. I told her to call an ambulance instead.
Before I left the jail; I texted my spouse. “I am going to the ER. I love you.” (In Freeborn County, you can pay to use a tablet with text messaging.) When we got to the emergency room of the Mayo Clinic Health hospital in Albert Lea, the jail staff told my husband to go home. Because I was incarcerated, he was not allowed to be there with me.
“These are his babies,” I told them. “I am not having these babies without him.”
I was transported to a second Mayo Clinic Health hospital, in Austin, because the first one didn’t have an obstetrician on site. If I had been in a jail cell, I could have had my tablet. I could have written a letter to the administrators and texted people on the outside to help me. But at this hospital, I couldn’t have any electronic devices. I couldn’t even call my lawyer.
I wrote a letter to the jail administrators and pleaded with the jailer watching me to give it to her boss when she switched shifts. All I wanted was for my partner to see his babies be born.
Instead, I gave birth via C-section to two healthy twin girls as a male guard stood outside the operating room. Twenty minutes later, my spouse arrived.
Because the babies were born six weeks early, they had to be transported to a NICU about 45 minutes away. I only had two hours total to hold my newborns before saying goodbye. For the first time in over two years, I didn’t have a baby in my stomach or my son by my side. I was all alone.
I was waiting for the prison bus to come get me from the hospital when I got a phone call from the department of corrections’ parenting program coordinator, Lori Timlin. She told me she had arranged for me to enter Minnesota’s new Healthy Start program. The program allows some women who give birth while incarcerated to bond with their newborns at home. If I stayed out of trouble, I could have up to a year with my twins.
Normally the women in this program would have their babies while serving their time in prison or jail, and they’d get out to be with their babies. Many of the women have short sentences, so once they go home with their babies to finish their time, they can bond with their newborns and stay bonded. But they made an exception for me, someone who had a longer sentence and who had yet to be transferred to prison.
The next day, someone from the Department of Corrections came to the hospital to put a monitor on my ankle. I signed some paperwork, and then I got to go home to be with my partner and my kids.
Because I am eventually going away, I chose to stay at home and spend as much time with my children as I can. My kids are so happy, and I am doing well, too. I’ve been sober almost three years, and I am two semesters away from graduating with a degree in psychology.
I often think about one question the judge asked during my sentencing: “What kind of life do you want for your kids?”
Of course, I want what is best for them. Some days, I think about whether I am holding my babies too much.
“Have you ever had to worry that your babies are so attached to you that you might hurt them even more when you leave?” I remember asking my doula, who I got through the Healthy Start program.
She told me it’s a silly thing to think because you can never hold your babies too much. I think it’s a valid question. Before I go to prison, I have to find someone else to help my family raise my kids.
A representative from the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office stated that they are unable to comment on any medical details of Lopez’s labor and delivery. They said no data exists on the last time someone went into labor at the Freeborn County Adult Detention Center. When asked about their policies related to pregnancy in the jail, they provided a document of procedures, “Care of the Pregnant Detainee & Counseling.”
The information officer for the Minnesota Department of Corrections did not respond to fact-checking questions about the Healthy Start program in time for publication.