Last July, as my parents and I sat munching Bugles around a visiting room table with my incarcerated sister in an Illinois state prison, a cry rang out from the table next to us. There, a bawling infant lay cradled in the arms of a visitor. She smoothed the baby's soft hair, then surreptitiously opened her shirt to nurse it. The baby simmered down immediately, happily sucking away.
Our conversation went silent, and my sister averted her eyes. She was 34 weeks pregnant herself. "Well," she said, patting her gigantic moon of a belly, "that's not gonna be us." Like almost all jails and prisons, her current locale didn't accommodate either breast pumps or nursing during visits.
Instead, my sister had this to anticipate: 24 hours after giving birth – in a scheduled, induced labor, with guards standing by and no family permitted – her newborn would be taken from her (pdf). After that, she'd be serving two and a half more months in prison. By the time of release, her body would have long stopped producing milk.
Although between 4 to 7 percent of female prisoners are pregnant, few are permitted to breastfeed, to use a breast pump to provide frozen breast milk to their babies, or even to "pump and dump" milk so they can breastfeed upon release.
For prisoners, the denial of the right to breastfeed is systemic, yanking the option from mothers deprived of almost all other means to care for and bond with their newborns. Skin-to-skin contact cements the mother-baby connection in the critical earliest months of life, and even the chance to pump and provide milk (without contact) promotes maternal attachment. For babies, that maternal bond may well be the number-one predictor of healthy child development. For prisoners like my sister, who have already been severed from their communities in many ways, that maternal-baby bond could be a key path to reconnection, heightening their chances (pdf) of avoiding re-offense and recidivism.
When I asked around about why postpartum prisoners couldn't even use breast pumps to keep the milk flowing until their release (most new mothers have relatively short sentences, so retaining the ability to produce milk is a useful goal), advocates told me that state departments of corrections tend to deem breast pumps a "security violation". In fact, in a Nevada case (pdf) in which a prisoner was medically prescribed a breast pump, the pump was confiscated upon reentry into the prison.
And so the vast majority of the 10,000 babies born to prisoners each year are not only deprived of the most important thing in the world to them – their mothers –they're also deprived of the possibility of mother's milk.
The right to breastfeed is, at its base, a community health issue: studies show that breast milk plays a powerful role in nurturing babies' immune systems. It carries crucial antibodies, reducing the risk of respiratory illness, diarrhea, allergies and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. As they grow older, kids who were breastfed are less likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer. Breastfeeding has even been shown to improve lifelong cognition.
Thus, the breast milk barrier denies prisoners' children access to a natural (and cost-free) source of preventive health care. Children of color and poor children are disproportionately punished, since those populations are significantly overrepresented in prison, and also seriously overrepresented when it comes to illness.
In the month after our visit to my sister, I wrote to lawmakers, advocacy groups and the Illinois Department of Corrections, seeking the reasoning behind the lack of breast pumps and the absence of avenues for breastfeeding. Many were surprised that I was asking. No immutable anti-pump policies existed on the books, but since no laws demanded that breast pumps be permitted, they just weren't.
However, changes occurring at isolated prisons carry a bit of hope. Several localized advocacy programs have recently made headway, such as Massachusetts' Prison Birth Project, which aids women in gaining breast pumps and delivering frozen milk to their babies. And thanks to help from state representatives and advocacy groups, my sister's prison, too, has acquired a breast pump. Hopefully, this case will provide an important precedent for other prisons.
This victory leaves me overjoyed. But it also immediately points to larger challenges. With mothers placed so far from their babies, few of them (including my sister, who's four hours from home) will be able to take the step from pumping to skin-to-skin feeding during regular visits. And more broadly, if the early months of a baby's life are so critical – and maternal connection plays such a large role in healthy development – a primary goal must be to prevent new mothers' incarceration to the greatest extent possible.
We're not making communities safer by depriving these infants and their mothers of the early contact and public health benefits that come with breastfeeding. In fact, we are quietly sentencing thousands of babies, the second they leave the womb.