Improving the system: BSCJ student enacts positive change in several prison facilities

Raelene Baker

Sometimes the smallest things can grow into something bigger than imagined. Raelene Baker knows this first-hand, as what started as a passion project is now on the verge of becoming a multi-state phenomenon.

Baker serves as the director for the Minnesota Prison Doula Projects, a nonprofit organization that helps birth professionals train to become prison doulas for service in penitentiary institutes on the county, state and soon-to-be federal level.

Baker didn’t get to her position overnight, however. In 2004, she started working as a birth doula in the Twin Cities area, after being introduced to the profession through a friend. Finding she enjoyed the work, Baker practiced her skills until 2008, when she connected with a couple other doulas to form a program that would eventually become the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. The program officially kicked off in 2010, starting at Minnesota’s state prison, and has only grown from there – not only within Minnesota, but to six other states and their facilities.

“We’ve been very busy figuring out how the program is going to work at the federal level and building the right teams for that,” Baker said. “Because of what the program has grown into, I work more on the administrative side of things these days, but I still manage to attend two births a year and teach prenatal and parenting education at some facilities. I still stay connected to that direct service, but it’s also been fun to see how my position has evolved into other roles.”

It was this drive to develop herself more professionally that also influenced Baker’s decision to return to school. Up until 2020, she kept herself busy between work and family, but once the pandemic shut down most of the world she saw an opportunity for further growth.

“Once the pandemic hit, I had time to think and ask myself ‘how could I be better at my job?’” Baker said. “How could I set an example for my kids? That’s when I landed on going back to school.”

With this new goal in mind, Baker enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in fall 2020, entering into its online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice program. She chose the program for its respected reputation and flexibility to fit her busy schedule, which was accommodating enough she even enrolled as a full-time student. While not easy, the online structure allowed Baker to juggle her studies, work and responsibilities at home.

“Returning to school has been great,” Baker said. “The professors I’ve had have been really supportive, and there’s been some older people like myself I’ve connected with. We’ve taken a few classes together and have been able to encourage each other along the way. My advisor, Joanna Muller, has also been great at helping me choose the right courses and staying on track for that December 2023 graduation date.”

Upon graduating, Baker intends to use her new degree to continue improving her organization and helping those in need – a goal she’s been working at since the first day she returned to school.

“A major objective of our organization is learning how to support families as they reintegrate together after an incarceration,” Baker said. “I feel like what I’ve learned from my studies will help me more in working with families affected by incarceration. I’ve been figuring out how this investment can benefit the organization’s daily operations ever since I first started my program, really.”

Time will tell how far the Minnesota Prison Doula Project will grow, but until then Baker is happy preparing herself for graduation, arriving in a matter of months.

“I’m thankful I went back to school,” Baker said. “I also hope others can be encouraged to go back and learn something that they’re interested in. It’s been hard, but it’s also been a really great experience.”