Staying Connected: Moms Who Pump in Prison
This article was originally published by Next City, in partnership with Fuller Project, on February 4th, 2019, by Fuller Project Correspondent Malcolm Burnley.
Warden Nancy Giannetta, clutching a dense ring of keys, gets buzzed through a series of security doors and into Unit G of Riverside Correctional Facility, a county jail for women in Philadelphia. It’s a Thursday afternoon in January when Giannetta greets three uniformed guards on her way to the back of the unit, where there’s a room with a turquoise door and windows shielded from the inside by a curtain.
“Ladies, you can resume your activities, just try to stay out of the way,” says Giannetta, who untangles a key to unlock a room no bigger than a few standard cells.
Inside are folding tables, plastic chairs, a cooler, and the low-pitched, electrical hum of a hospital-grade breast pump. It’s where Cierra Jackson pumps according to her specifications, three times a day, under the direction of a doula and a nurse. “They gave me a book on breast-pumping and it was telling me that the breast milk has antibodies,” Jackson says. “It’s very helpful for the baby, keeping them smart and healthy. I did not know until I read the book. I never breastfed before — I never wanted to.”
Jackson is one of six mothers at Riverside who are currently participating in the lactation program, one of the first of its kind inside an American jail. Women who give birth just before or during their time here are given access to breastfeeding education and the facilities of the lactation room, plus additional hand pumps and milk storage bags to keep within their cells. Case managers from a local nonprofit transport the mothers’ milk directly to their babies on the outside, returning to the jail with pictures and updates.
While a woman’s right to pump her breast milk is legally protected in the United States, the privilege doesn’t extend to incarcerated moms. Unlike men, the majority of whom are incarcerated in state and federal prisons, the majority of women in custody in the U.S. are locked up in local or county jails. And the majority of these women have yet to be convicted of a crime. Most are being held in custody pre-trial because they can’t afford to post bail, or they’re waiting on overburdened criminal courts to try their case. (Of those women already convicted, most are serving time for misdemeanors or lesser offenses.) On any given day, 70 percent of all people in American jails haven’t been convicted of a crime. In Philadelphia, the duration of pre-trial stays have been considerably longer than in most big-city jurisdictions; more than a quarter of pre-trial detainees stay in jail for a month or longer.
One month (or less) spent in lockup is plenty of time to lose a job, to get evicted, or in the case of a nursing mother, to lose the ability to produce and provide breast milk for a newborn — a loss that carries potential health consequences for both the child and the mom. Those consequences are exacerbated by the fact that people in jail make even less money than those imprisoned in state or federal facilities. Given that the cost of infant formula can run upwards of $1,500 per year, the most at-risk mothers — and their children — are also being economically penalized by revoking their right to pump. Unless they happen to be sent to a jail such as Riverside.
While it’s not skin-to-skin contact between mother and child, the lactation program aims to achieve some of the same psychological and health benefits ascribed to breastfeeding. The medical consensus is that babies who consume breast milk are at lower risk of asthma, diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome, while mothers are less likely to develop breast and ovarian cancers. But the practice also promotes more stable family units, strengthening an emotional bond between child and caretaker.
“I Get To Have A Clear Mind, Three Times A Day”
That bond can be strengthened even when mom is behind bars. “I can still have some type of connection with my daughter, a connection through the milk,” Jackson says. “I never wanted to breast pump before. All my other kids had formula.”
Jackson, 27, was arrested last fall one day after giving birth to her youngest daughter, Ummayyah. There was a bench warrant out for her arrest stemming from a missed court appearance, which was part of Jackson’s house arrest for an assault charge she picked up in 2017.
“I knew they had the bench warrant out for me, I just didn’t know when they’d serve it,” Jackson says. Once over with the delivery, she knew she was headed back in jail. “When I was at the hospital I was so depressed. I didn’t want to eat or sleep because they told me I was being taken away from her.”
Jackson, a mother of four, says the last six months have been the longest period of time she’s spent away from her kids, although, by pumping for her new baby for the first time in her life, she hasn’t felt entirely lost. She also is taking parenting classes at the correctional facility. The nonprofit Maternity Care Coalition runs the classes and the lactation program, through an initiative it calls MOMobile.
“I thought I would be up here stressed out because I just had a baby and I knew how long I would have to be here,” Jackson says. “Being in the lactation program, I’ve been happy ever since” — she pauses, as if made aware again of her surroundings — “being in the lactation program, coming here, it’s like I get to have a clear mind three times a day.”
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