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A Call for a Breastfeeding Program in Michigan’s Prisons

Introduction

Siwatu Salama Ra, an avid social and racial justice organizer, was incarcerated when she gave birth to her son in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Soon after giving birth, her son was taken from her, and she was not permitted to breastfeed. Her conviction has since been reversed, but the pain and trauma of not being able to share her milk with her child have never left her. In a Q&A with The Detroit Metro Times (Perkins, 2018), Siwatu Salama-Ra recounted:


“No woman deserves to give birth while incarcerated. That's something that I'm going to have to heal from. So the rest of my life, I will never forget ... that I was not able to breastfeed my baby. I will never forget being separated from him…”


She is not alone in experiencing this trauma. Breastfeeding parents in Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility have been left in the lurch; currently, there are no policies protecting their fundamental right to breastfeed their children.

Beyond the vast emotional value of breastfeeding in a parent-child relationship, there are physical health benefits for both mother and child. According to the Center for Disease Control, breastfed infants are at lower risk for ear infections, digestive bugs, asthma, SIDs, and other diseases (CDC, 2021). Additionally, parents who breastfeed have lower risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure (CDC, 2021).

When we bar incarcerated parents from breastfeeding their children, we bar them and their children from reaping these health benefits. By not protecting the right of incarcerated parents to breastfeed, the state of Michigan is telling incarcerated parents and their families that they have less of a right to the health benefits of breastfeeding than the rest of society. Furthermore, we would be remiss to write about health inequities for incarcerated mothers without discussing who is most affected by incarceration. In the state of Michigan, 53% of the incarcerated population is Black, yet only 14% of the population is black (Nellis, 2021). Outside of the carceral system, hospitals and practitioners are increasingly pushing breastfeeding as the best practice. Yet, inside Michigan’s prisons, incarcerated parents and their babies are denied these benefits, thereby widening not only disparities within the incarcerated population, but amongst racial and ethnic disparities as well.

In this blog, we call for Michigan lawmakers to pass comprehensive legislation that promotes better health outcomes for incarcerated breastfeeding parents and their babies. We begin by explaining examples of current breastfeeding programs in other state prisons and move forward with a call to action for Michigan lawmakers to rectify these injustices.


Existing Programs: Pump-and-Pick-Up Programs

A viable option for states with no breastfeeding programs is to start with the implementation of a pump-and-pick-up program. A pump-and-pick-up program is a relatively easy breastfeeding program to start with because the infrastructure of the prisons and jails would not have to change. Pump-and-pick-up programs allow incarcerated individuals to pump breast milk and store it in a freezer until further use. The individual would be provided a private space whether that be in a medical clinic within the prison or the equipment may be brought to the individual’s cell (Know Your Rights, 2021). Moreover, the program would allow the lactating person to choose who picks up and delivers the milk.

In 2018, California passed a bill that requires every jail in the state to establish a pump-and-pick-up program. The bill mandates that the jail must provide information about the program to every lactating individual or pregnant person, as well as requiring jails to provide pumping equipment and a place to freeze and store the milk. Additionally, the bill requires that the jail must allow the lactating individual the autonomy to choose who picks up the milk (A.B. 2507, 2018).


Existing Programs: Nursery Programs

A more comprehensive program for incarcerated mothers and their children are prison nursery programs. These not only reap the benefits of breastfeeding for both the child and the mother, but also have additional benefits that come from long-term parent-child relationships. Currently, only 10 states have some form of an active prison nursery, of which Michigan is not one, but the number of programs is continuously increasing with some states having implemented them as recently as 2022. These programs generally range from 18 to 30 months long and are only available to mothers who have that amount of time, or less, left on their sentence. Some states also offer further accommodations for birth parents and children beyond the scope of a nursery. In South Dakota, the PACT (Parent and Children Together) program allows a weekend-long visitation once per month (South Dakota Department of Corrections). The Parenting Program in Nebraska allows for extended day visits within the Parenting Program area (National Institute of Corrections).

The prison nurseries aim to both facilitate rehabilitation and reduce recidivism for birthing parents, while also providing an environment that encourages the healthy development of the child. In terms of rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, multiple studies of different states’ prison nursery programs have found that the recidivism rates for individuals who participated in prison nursery programs were lower compared to the overall recidivism rate for women (Carlson, 2001; Goshin et al., 2014) . A study on the two prison nursery programs in New York state, one of which is the oldest program in the country, found that the distribution of attachment styles for the children who participated in the nursery program was similar to the distribution found in the general population: a higher proportion of infants that resided in the nursery program for the full length had secure attachment styles compared to infants who were released into the community earlier, due to the mother fulfilling her sentence (75% vs 43%) (Byrne et al., 2010).

Furthermore, even though most studies on the effectiveness of prison nursery programs look at infant attachment and recidivism rates to measure the program’s success, it is important to note that there are also other possible positive outcomes that should be considered when evaluating the value of prison nursery programs.


Recommendations

Given that we are in a monumental moment in Michigan’s governmental history with the presence of a Democratic trifecta, it is time for Michigan to join the 17 other states with some form of a breastfeeding program for incarcerated parents. The Pregnancy Standards of Care policy, modeled after Senate Bill 830, was implemented by Governor Whitmer in the Fall of 2021. Unfortunately, this policy omitted the breastfeeding program previously included in the Senate bill, which would have implemented various strategies to increase the accessibility of breastmilk for infants.

This policy assured that parents who had given birth within the last 12 months would be given the opportunity to breastfeed infants during in-person visits, and if in-person visits were not feasible, the opportunity to express their breast milk (S.B. 830, 2020). It also mandated that breastfeeding parents must be given a pump, storage containers, and access to a refrigerator to store the breast milk until it is picked up by an approved individual. Additionally, this policy stated that if the child was less than 37 months old and was being breastfed, more frequent visitation would be allowed (S.B. 830, 2020)

These strategies would have increased accessibility for breastfeeding and provided breast milk for infants, which would have led to numerous health benefits. Noelle Gorka, previous president of the Prison Birth Project and major advocate of SB 380, explained why programs like these are so important. Gorka listed the numerous benefits of breastfeeding and followed by saying:


...that being said, it’s not the right choice for everybody, but that’s the thing: it should be a choice, and it’s a choice that’s not available to people who are incarcerated.


We also discussed the process of implementing a breastfeeding program and making this choice available for incarcerated parents. When deciding between an external and a nursery program, it gets complicated, according to Gorka. Direct breastfeeding of the infant is preferred, for the health benefits, but the ethics of essentially incarcerating an infant are complicated. Gorka’s home state, Minnesota, recently implemented a deferred sentencing program that seeks to bypass this ethical dilemma. The Healthy Start Act allows for some parents to have a conditional release from incarceration and be with their infant for up to a year in an alternative environment, examples being a halfway house or rehabilitation center (Lee, 2021).

Regardless of the specifics of the program implemented, breastfeeding provides both health benefits and bonding opportunities for parents and children. It is imperative that we act on the momentum of the Democratic trifecta in Michigan’s government to provide these families the benefits that any parent and child should be guaranteed.


References:


Byrne, M. W., Goshin, L. S., & Joestl, S. S. (2010). Intergenerational transmission of attachment for infants raised in a prison nursery. Attachment & Human Development, 12(4), 375-393. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/10.1080/14616730903417011


CDC. (2021, July 27). Five Great Benefits of Breastfeeding. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/features/breastfeeding-benefits/index.html


Carlson, J.R. (2001). Prison nursery 2000: A five-year review of the prison nursery at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 33(3), 75-97.


Goshin, L.S., Byrne, M.W., & Henninger, A.M. (2014).Recidivism after release from a prison nursery program. Public Health Nursing, 31(2), 109-117. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/10.1111/phn.12072


Know Your Rights: Reproductive Health Care in California Jails | ACLU of Northern CA. (2021,

December 9). ACLU NorCal. https://www.aclunc.org/our-work/know-your-rights/know-your-rights-reproductive-health-care-california-jails


Lee, J. (2021, June 11). Minnesota offers conditional release to some incarcerated mothers. The 19th.

Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://19thnews.org/2021/06/minnesota-to-let-incarcerated-mothers-be-with-their-newborns/


National Institute of Corrections. Parenting Program/Prison Nursery. https://info.nicic.gov/jiwp/node/194


Nellis, A. (2021, October 13). The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons. The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/reports/the-color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons-the-sentencing-project/


Perkins, T. (2018, November 20). A Q&A with recently freed Detroit activist Siwatu-Salama Ra. Detroit Metro Times. https://www.metrotimes.com/news/a-qanda-with-recently-freed-detroit-activist-siwatu-salama-ra-17925544


S.B. 830, 101 Biennium, 2020 Reg. Sess. (Mich. 2020). http://legislature.mi.gov/documents/2019-2020/billintroduced/Senate/htm/2020-SIB-0830.htm


South Dakota Department of Corrections. Inmate work program. https://doc.sd.gov/adult/work/docwork.aspx


AB-2507 County Jails: Infant and Toddler Breast Milk Feeding Policy, AB2507, Assembly, 2018 (2018). https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billCompareClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB2507

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