This Is What It’s Really Like to Breastfeed Behind Bars

hand of prisoner in jail as background.
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When Tami Revering, a 35-year-old mother of four and homemaker in Minneapolis, Minnesota was sentenced to serve time in jail back in 2011, she knew she wanted to continue breastfeeding her 3-month-old baby at all costs.

Not only was breastfeeding important to Revering because she had nursed her older child, but it provided a way for her to continue carrying out her motherly duties and stay connected to her son after she was convicted of shaking her friend’s baby and later diagnosed with severe postpartum depression.

“Nursing in jail definitely helped me maintain a bond and was the only way I could mother in jail,” she explains. “Being allowed to pump and nurse helped ease that guilty feeling a little bit.”

The opportunity to express breast milk behind bars however, is not always a guaranteed right. Currently, about 206,000 women in the U.S. are incarcerated and between 6-10 percent of them are pregnant. These women, along with the unknown number of women and gender-nonconforming individuals who are lactating, will face the difficult challenge of what to do with their breast milk behind bars.

But that’s where things get messy. Ruth Dawson, reproductive justice staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California and Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars explain that there are no formal laws protecting lactating individuals behind bars. This basically means that breastfeeding is not a specific right addressed under the Eighth Amendment, which dictates that detention facilities cannot be “indifferent to a prisoner’s serious medical need.”

Although Dawson explains that the ACLU and other prisoner advocacy organizations would argue that lactation support absolutely falls under the category of “serious medical need,” not every detention facility agrees. This leaves pregnant and postpartum inmates at the mercy of a system that is not always prepared to handle lactation.

“There is no standard,” Sufrin explains. “Most jails and prisons do not allow postpartum women to express breast milk or directly breast feed their babies.”

Sufrin, along with the Dawson and her team, have done extensive research on the issues pregnant inmates face. Their report, Reproductive Health Behind Bars in California, revealed that although most detention facilities do not have official policies on lactation, there are some model pump-and-pick-up programs (where a prisoner can pump her milk and have a family member pick it up) that illustrate what’s possible in terms of lactation support.

For example, in Kern County, a mother was exclusively breastfeeding her 3-month-old baby when she was suddenly incarcerated. When the baby developed bronchitis as a result of the cessation of breast milk, the jail worked with the ACLU to arrange for house arrest that allowed for nursing, while also developing a formal pumping program for the other inmates. “They now have one of the best policies that we have seen,” Dawson says.

The ACLU was also able to help Christina Milliner, a breastfeeding mother in Michigan who was breastfeeding her premature son when she was sentenced. She turned to the ACLU for help when her breasts became discolored and engorged and she suffered from dehydration.

“My baby was so tiny when he was born, and Micah’s doctors had kept telling me how important it was that I breastfeed him,” Milliner said in a statement. “No mother should have to go through this — and certainly no child should either.”

Because the U.S. does not have a federal policy on breastfeeding or pumping behind bars, each county jail and prison is free to decide whether a mother will be allowed to pump or nurse. Dawson notes that California provides extra support measures as lactation discrimination falls under the state’s protection against sex discrimination of inmates. However, the rest of the country is still trying to catch up in terms of policies and procedures for pregnant and postpartum inmates.

The statistics on how pregnant women are treated in prison are sobering, and breastfeeding remains a reflection of that. When we think about a woman breastfeeding while incarcerated, we have to remember two things: One, the majority of incarcerated mothers have committed non-violent crimes and are more likely to be victims of addiction, abuse, and mental health disorders. Two, no matter what the mother’s crime, her baby is 100 percent innocent.

“Infants are the ones that get lost, along with their mothers, when they are born behind bars,” explains Ashley Lovell, childbirth educator, doula, and executive director of the Alabama Prison Birth Project.

Although Lovell believes that an incarcerated mother has a basic right to provide her infant with breast milk, she also points out that the rights of the innocent infant cannot be disputed:

“A newborn absolutely has the right to his mother’s milk, and all the immunological, digestive, and developmental benefits it confers,” she says. “Infants born to mothers in jail or prison are at higher risk for preterm birth, and breast milk for preemies is life-saving. Even full-term babies deserve the benefits of their mother’s milk if that is what she also desires, as long as their mother meets health guidelines. Babies born to incarcerated mothers are starting off with challenges. They need attached and bonded mothers, and providing breast milk is an excellent way to promote that.”

Increasingly, women behind bars are pushing for the right to give their babies breast milk. In 2011, a jailed woman’s doctor petitioned the court to allow her baby to be breastfed four to five times a day after she discovered the baby was vomiting up formula and losing weight. In 2014, Brittany Weber publicly complained that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed during a seven day jail sentence, citing that her infant developed “digestive and latch issues” as a result. And in August, New Mexico ruled that it was a “fundamental right” for incarcerated mothers to be allowed to breastfeed their babies.

Lovell also points out that breast milk can be a powerful bonding and healing tool for mothers as well, by providing them with a very real physical task of parenting that only they can do.

“For mothers in prison, there is a complicated relationship with the caregivers of her baby,” she points out. “She is the parent, but she is limited in the parenting things she can do for her child. But only she can provide this milk for her baby. It keeps her connected. It solidifies her mothering identity. It keeps her making healthy choices for herself in a postpartum period where it would be easy to give up, check out, and sink into despair. It’s a lifeline for both her and her baby.”

Lovell’s organization, the Alabama Prison Birth Project, provides a wonderful example of how the system can work to support breastfed infants. The growing program works by offering any mother who gives birth while in custody the option of expressing milk for as long as she wishes using a hospital-grade pump donated by Ameda in a private area with comfortable chairs. All of the mothers and caregivers are given lessons on breast milk supply, hygienic expression, and milk storage. After the mother pumps, the milk is frozen and hand-delivered to the group home where the infant is placed. And any unused milk is shipped, funding permitting. Although the program currently hasn’t been successful in pushing for breastfeeding or skin-to-skin rights during physical visitations, Lovell says she is hopeful that it will happen in the future.

Similar initiatives to support breastfeeding mothers behind bars are growing. For instance, Aeroflow announced a partnership in August with Grady Memorial Hospital to provide Ameda breast pump kits to new mothers to use to maintain their supply during their time at Dekalb Detention Center.

“Our mission at Aeroflow Breastpumps is to increase instances of breastfeeding nationally, and this absolutely applies to incarcerated moms and their babies,” Director of Mom and Baby at Aeroflow, Jennifer Jordan tells Babble. “That’s because breast milk is a human right.”

Viewing breast milk expression as a right is one of the first steps towards changing how lactation is treated behind bars, and that extends to inmates’ beliefs as well. Studies have found that many inmates mistakenly believe that breastfeeding either isn’t allowed, or that the effort isn’t worth it.

Revering says she was actually the first woman in her county to request to breastfeed during her jail sentence. She used a statement from her midwife to help convince the judge of the importance of maintaining the connection of breastfeeding with her baby. “To have that bonding time continue while in jail, was so important for the health of my babies,” Revering says.

To actually accomplish pumping, Revering had to request her breast pump from one of the guards, usually a male. Once finished pumping, she had to hand over her still-warm bags of breast milk over to the male guard, who she says reacted as if he was holding “toxic” material to place the milk in the fridge … located behind the guard’s desk. Because she was in jail and not prison, and because she had a lawyer who advocated on her behalf, Revering believes she had an opportunity to breastfeed and pump that many other inmates don’t necessarily have.

Although Revering says that she was “lucky” that breastfeeding worked out for her, she still believes that luck shouldn’t be part of the equation for an inmate producing milk.

“It should be just a standard, that if a mother must go to jail, but is nursing, these things are easily available to her,” she says. “She shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to give her child a basic need.”

Dawson definitely agrees, because in the end, pregnant and postpartum inmates deserve the opportunity to express breast milk as a medical need.

“You don’t give up all of your civil rights the second that you’re incarcerated,” Dawson says. “People still have a right to medical treatment. There are still protections. You don’t cease to be human. That’s not part of the punishment.”

If you or someone you know is denied the right to pump behind bars, contact your local ACLU office for assistance in acquiring lactation support.

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