Friday, September 22, 2017
Huffington Post (Sept. 17, 2017): Breastfeeding Behind Bars: Do All Moms Deserve the Right?, by Kimberly Seals Allers
33-year-old Monique Hidalgo is mom to a 5-week old baby. Her child's father brings their infant to visit her on the weekends, as Hidalgo is also an inmate at a New Mexican state prison. Due to her incarceration, Hidalgo was refused contact with her newborn when she wanted to breastfeed her. She was also denied access to a breast pump that would've allowed her to provide milk for her baby from behind bars.
Last month, though, a Sante Fe judge ruled that the Corrections Department policy denying incarcerated mothers their right to breastfeed was unconstitutional. The judge ordered that Hidalgo be able to breastfeed her child during visits and also ordered that she receive access to an electric pump.
"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.
Prisons are generally punitive over rehabilitative when it comes to incarcerated parents dealing with incarceration. Society rarely accounts for the circumstances that led to a parent's imprisonment, including poverty and racism. An incarcerated mother is deemed a "bad mom" in order to justify stripping her of the opportunity to maintain important, biological connections with her child like breastfeeding.
Women's advocates highlight that, in an effort to punish mothers, policies like those that forbid breastfeeding are actually punishing the infants as well, depriving them not only of their mother, but also of the benefits associated with breastfeeding. Experts also find that enabling the mother-baby connection may be a beneficial way to keep a mother connected to her family and community, therefore increasing her chances of successful re-integration and discouraging recidivism.
Reproductive justice is scarcely considered with incarcerated women in mind, however, Democratic senators have recently introduced positive legislation. Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) introduced The Dignity for Incarcerated Women's Act. The bill would prohibit federal prisons from shackling pregnant women or placing them in solitary confinement, require federal prisons to provide free tampons and pads for women, and would extend visiting hours for inmates and their children.
Even as we make progress, though, the question remains: which aspects of the mother-child connection are a right versus a privilege? When the early months of an infant's life are so critical to future development, shouldn't minimizing the separation of incarcerated mothers and their children be a societal goal rather than a constitutional battle?