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Women In Prison Are Fighting For The Right To Breastfeed — & So Far, It's Not Going Well

Breastfeeding is a tremendous source of frustration for a lot of new moms; you have to figure out when and if to pump, how to get your little bub to latch properly, and how to fiddle with flimsy maternity bras. But for female prisoners in the United States, the struggles can be much more basic. In fact, many female prisoners ask the question: can I breastfeed at all?

In the United States, there are more than 200,000 women incarcerated in prisons and jails; rough estimates say about 8% of them are pregnant when they enter the facility. That means thousands of babies are born behind bars every year, and obviously some of these mothers want to breastfeed them. But shockingly, there are very few concrete policies regarding pregnant women in prisons and jails across the country, and even fewer regarding lactation.

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According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) manual, babies are generally taken from their mothers' custody within 24-48 hours after birth. It’s up to the mother to find a placement for the child, which can include placement within the state’s foster care system. The Federal Bureau of Prisons specifies that breastfeeding is allowed in their visitation rooms, but as anyone who has ever breastfed a newborn knows, it often takes time to establish a milk supply and get a baby to latch — and time is a luxury that many female prisoners do not have.

The lack of resources for incarcerated nursing moms was recently highlighted by the case of Monique Hidalgo, a woman in prison on probation violations in New Mexico. Hidalgo gave birth in May. In the hospital, she was treated with Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction. Doctors said her milk was safe for the infant, but because Suboxone is considered contraband in prison, prison officials allegedly barred her from nursing during family visitation. They also allegedly confiscated her hospital-issued electric breast pump, deeming it a security violation and issuing her a manual pump instead. (Hidalgo did not respond to Romper's requests for comment.)

"The fact is that when you’re incarcerated, you lose a lot of privileges that you otherwise had when you’re not in jail."

Hidalgo is suing the Department of Corrections, saying her doctors had advised her to breastfeed to help her baby recover after he was born addicted to opioids. She secured a restraining order to allow her to use an electronic pump and then store her milk, but the Department of Corrections is seeking to have the order overturned, arguing that her milk is unsafe for her infant.

Hidalgo’s lawsuit underscores the lack of resources available to breastfeeding women in prisons, and it’s hardly the first of its kind. In 2014, prisoner Britney Weber received national attention when she said a Wisconsin jail prevented her from pumping milk after her daughter was born. As a result of not being able to express milk, Weber argued, she was unable to lactate and her daughter developed stomach problems.

In response, Sheriff John Gossage told the local newspaper that while the prison tries to accommodate nursing mothers, "the fact is that when you’re incarcerated, you lose a lot of privileges that you otherwise had when you’re not in jail." Which prompts the obvious question: is breastfeeding a privilege or a right for new mothers?

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Romper reached out to several prisons across the country at varying security levels to find out what their policies were regarding breastfeeding. We focused on prisons, which typically house inmates serving longer sentences, as opposed to jails, which generally house inmates on shorter sentences or those awaiting trial.

There isn't a specific protocol for nursing moms across the board. While there are some prisons with programs that allow mothers to have regular contact with their infants, they are not available to all inmates, or in every state. The BOP manual also states that pregnant inmates will receive “medical, case management, and counseling services,” though there is no specification as to how much or what kind of medical treatment that might be. (It's worth noting that the manual does not take into account women at state or privately owned prisons.)

"The problem is that across the country, institutions have no policies at all. They don’t try [to support nursing mothers] in the least. And by failing to do so, they’re actually hurting people in the community, specifically the child.”

The manual also states that women will have the option to use a breast pump provided by the prison, but that “ordinarily, this milk is not stored, but rather is disposed of by the inmate under staff supervision." The manual adds that exceptions can be made pending the approval of the warden, but for the most part, facilities lack the refrigeration space to store expressed milk.

While this policy would certainly help a new mom maintain her milk supply until she is released, it effectively means there's a lot of fresh breast milk being poured down the drain. If a woman is incarcerated for a short sentence, it might be helpful for her to pump just to maintain her supply; but for women facing more substantial sentences, the policy seems pointless.

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In light of growing evidence that infants benefit tremendously from being exclusively fed breast milk for the first 6 months of life, some people are advocating for prisons to revise their breastfeeding policies. Amy Fettig, the deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says prisons are dragging their heels when it comes to implementing better breastfeeding policies.

“Every prison has kitchens and industrial refrigerators,” Fettig said. “You could say ‘OK, we’ll store it up to a week, and you can have a family member or next of kin come and pick it up, and then if no one does, then we’ll dispose of it.’ That would be a fair thing to do. The problem is that across the country, institutions have no policies at all. They don’t try [to support nursing mothers] in the least. And by failing to do so, they’re actually hurting people in the community, specifically the child.”

"She’s not going to be able to pump. Her breasts will likely not just become engorged, but infected. And there is very little done to help her through that process.”

And it can hurt poor children and people of color even more. The rates of incarceration are higher among Black and Latina women than white women, which means their children will not be breastfed at the same rates — and considering breastfeeding rates are already lagging in the Black community as is, this is a problem.

Such policies can also be dangerous. Fettig says more women are reaching out to local ACLU offices about lactation issues, like not being able to use a hospital-provided breast pump. Risk of infection in the form of mastitis, which causes swelling of the breasts, soreness, and fevers and flu-like symptoms, is a real concern. Mastitis is caused when the breast isn’t fully emptied during a feeding — or in this case, when women don’t get to pump or express the milk at all.

“The doctors at the hospital will give [the prisoner] a breast pump, [but] that breast pump is going to be confiscated for quote-unquote security issues,” Fettig lamented. “Then she’s not going to be able to pump. Her breasts will likely not just become engorged, but infected. And there is very little done to help her through that process.”

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Fettig says there’s a good reason why women in prison don’t have access to breastfeeding resources: men. Many of the regulations that deal with prisoner medical issues are based on male prisoners. “Too frequently, [women] are treated as an afterthought, or prison administrators are surprised by their unique needs,” Fettig explained.

Fettig says the ACLU is working with individual states to pass laws that will help new mothers, like getting prisons to store breastmilk and allowing mothers skin-to-skin time during visitation. For Fettig, that a prison wouldn’t have concrete policies regarding lactation, but would have posted regulations on, say, items available in the commissary, is mind-boggling.

“These institutions (have) policies for everything,” Fettig said, "and yet glaringly there are so rarely adequate or any policies to deal with the unique needs that women have behind bars, as if they weren’t there.”