Breastfeeding Behind Bars: Do All Moms Deserve the Right?

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From Huffington Post:

Like many women, Monique Hidalgo, 33, simply wanted to breastfeed her 5-week-old baby, Isabella. Not as simply, Hidalgo is an inmate at a state prison in New Mexico. Hidalgo, who had breastfed her previous children, desired to breastfeed when the baby’s father brought her to the prison for weekend visits. But the guards would not allow it. Nor would they allow her access to an electric breast pump and outlet to provide breastmilk to her baby in-between visits. So Hidalgo filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, its officials and two guards seeking an injunction against the policy banning incarcerated mothers in New Mexico state prisons from breastfeeding their infants.

She won.

A Santa Fe judge submitted the written order last month, ruling that the Corrections Department policy was unconstitutional. In fact, the judge said all mothers incarcerated in state prisons—like all New Mexico mothers- have a fundamental and protected right to breastfeed their infants and a Corrections Department policy banning breastfeeding was in violation of the state constitution. The Judge also ordered the Corrections Department to allow access to an electric pump, another practice the agency had prohibited.

The ruling is significant for future generations of incarcerated mothers and their babies in New Mexico but also holds nationwide ramifications for the growing number of incarcerated mothers in the U.S. prison system. The number of women incarcerated in the U.S. rose more than 700% between 1980 and 2014, according to The Sentencing Project. Yet, most prisons have no stated breastfeeding policy.

“While there have been many cases, both in federal and state court, affirming a woman’s right to breastfeed in a public place or at work, incarcerated women have largely been left out of this conversation,” said Amber Fayerberg, Ms. Hidalgo’s lead counsel, at Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward, whose firm is working the case pro-bono. “This case acknowledges that incarcerated women are not just “inmates,” but women and, often, mothers,” Fayerberg said in an email interview.

But is society ready to accept breastfeeding as a basic right that should not be lost due to criminal activity? In a country where women struggle to breastfeed, being able to breastfeed feels more akin to a privilege. When something is viewed as a privilege then subjective lines are drawn about who deserves to breastfeed. A privilege must be earned or it is given to only select people. Dangerous stereotypes about who actually cares about giving the best infant nutrition for their child also show up. Mothers in prison have long suffered under a social stigma— a shortsighted view that any mother who is incarcerated is by definition a “bad mother” who should not be afforded the same rights of law abiding citizens.

Those flash judgments don’t take into account how women typically end up in prison, nor does it consider the role of racism and poverty play in access to drugs and recovery programs. America’s prescription drug problem, including opioids, as Ms. Hidalgo was suffering from, are hitting women hard, while support services decrease. About two thirds of women serve time for non-violent offenses, according to data from John Jay’s Prisoner Reentry Institute, and more than 60% are mothers of children under age 18. About 6% of women are pregnant at the time of arrest, according to the Institute.

“Unfortunately, society is pretty punitive even with non-violent offenders, with little knowledge of circumstances people find themselves in and the most common pathways to prison for women,” says Gail Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project at The Correctional Association of New York, a non-profit that monitors women’s prison facilities.

“In general, reproductive justice stops at the prison door,” says Amy Fettig, Deputy Director, ACLU National Prison Project, in a recent phone interview, noting that most reproductive rights and breastfeeding advocates have been slow moving in raising voices for incarcerated women.

Read the full article here.