Nursing mothers in Denver jail have to pour their milk down the drain

Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board wants the jail to get past logistical hurdles to storage and transfer and get mother’s milk to babies.
9 min. read
Mrs. Charles (Hazel LaDora Rhoads) Gates and her newborn baby in Denver, Colorado. Circa 1910. (Harry Mellon Rhoads/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rh-5831) historic; denver public library; dpl; archive; archival; denverite

Nursing mothers who find themselves in Denver jails now have access to breast pumps, but they have to pour their expressed milk down the drain rather than give it to their babies.

Denver's Citizen Oversight Board and a committee that works on gender equity issues in the jail are pushing Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman and jail administrators to get past the logistical hurdles to storage and transfer and get mother's milk into the mouths of babies who depend on it.

In a letter to Firman posted on the COB website, oversight board members recommend that jail policy be revised. The letter describes the ways that sudden weaning can be "physically and emotionally traumatic for both mothers and infants" and concludes:

Incarceration in a jail setting, where the majority of detainees are pretrial and presumed to be innocent, can have significant negative consequences on children, families and communities, including financial, economic and emotional effects. Part of the DSD’s mission is to perform its duties “in a manner that is responsive to the needs of our diverse community.” We therefore recommend that any final policy that is developed should permit mothers to not only express their milk; they should also be allowed to provide it to their babies. We would welcome the opportunity to assist you in the process of revising the DSD’s policy on nursing mothers, and ask that you meet with us to discuss the concerns documented in this letter before the policy is finalized.

Some of you will read this story and wonder what the big deal is, and some of you will have an immediate, visceral reaction -- maybe even a phantom ache -- and know exactly what the big deal is.

There are a few things to understand about nursing and weaning if you don't have personal experience with these issues.

If your body is producing milk and you don't have a good way to get it out, it starts to hurt, a lot, after a few hours. As more time goes by, the risk of mastitis and infection goes up. Milk supply works by supply and demand, so if you're not releasing milk, your body eventually produces less. A woman who spends a few weeks in jail might lose the ability to nurse her child because her supply goes down so much.

The ability to pump addresses those problems, to a degree, but it doesn't address problems that may arise for a child. Some babies switch easily between breast and bottle, between formula and breast milk, while others are very particular and will refuse to eat or not eat as much as they should. It's not as simple as "just use formula" for all babies.

And while nobody really likes pumping, "pumping and dumping" is heartbreaking. There's a reason professional women who travel for work went into open revolt in the early days of the panic around liquids on planes as TSA agents forced them to pour out those precious ounces of liquid gold. The TSA continues to mess this up, despite the policies currently in place, which is upsetting. But incarcerated women don't have the same ability to get their stories out.

The Denver Sheriff Department says it cares about supporting nursing mothers.

It just doesn't have the knowledge or resources to store breast milk and give it to family members or caregivers.

"At this time, the Department is only able to support nursing mothers in maintaining their milk supply; it does not have the equipment or expertise required to safely store and transport expressed milk," Daelene Mix, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said in an email.

"However, the Department’s Gender Equity Commission has been assessing if breastfeeding services can be extended to include storage and transport," she continued. "Providing these services in a jail setting is complex and must include considerations around privacy, security and appropriate lactation support."

Mix said the department is working with its current medical provider -- that would be Denver Health -- to see if medical staff could play a role, and it's talking to other jurisdictions that already do this. Lisa Calderón, a member of the gender equity committee, said medical staff would be the logical people to assist nursing mothers, and there's no need for a solution to depend on scarce deputy resources.

A representative of Denver Health said via email: "At this point, Denver Health is not involved in this conversation." She declined to answer a specific question about whether Denver Health would provide this service under the current scope of its contract.

The National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which provides accreditation to jails and prisons, including Denver, recommends that "correctional facilities should make arrangements for postpartum women to either breastfeed their infants or to pump, freeze and transport breast milk for their infants.”

Katina Banks, chair of the Citizen Oversight Board, said she doesn't doubt that the logistical issues for jail staff are real. However, it's important to solve them and to do so soon.

"I don't presume that the reasons that they've given are untrue," she said. "The idea is that we should try harder. It's been done in other places. Whatever liability issues they identify, there is more work to be done. There are some logistics they need to work through, but children still need to be fed."

As the oversight board members outlined in their letter, the Nevada Department of Corrections will store expressed breast milk and allow designated family members to pick it up at the gatehouse, and Travis County, Texas, allows family members to bring infants for breastfeeding sessions with eligible inmates.

That latter option is off the table for now in Denver because Denver doesn't allow any in-person visitation for jail inmates. Instead, family members talk to inmates through video conferencing. Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell has called for the jail to restore in-person visitation.

Mix previously said the department is open to making that change, but it would require significant changes to the way the jail is laid out and staffed. Banks said the oversight board is also interested in revising the visitation policy, but members don't want to delay changes to the policies for nursing mothers while the more complex visitation policy is revisited.

This issue came to the attention of the oversight board at a recent community forum.

The board holds quarterly community forums, and at September's, a man described a situation involving a three-week old infant whose mother was in jail.

"The infant had not yet switched to formula and needed to be breastfed while the mother was in DSD custody," the letter said. "Several community members brought the infant and then a breast pump to the jail, but a DSD deputy allegedly would not allow the mother to breastfeed her infant or provide the child with pumped breast milk. In response to this complaint, you (Sheriff Firman) stated that 'this should not have happened' and assured us, and the community, that you would look into the incident."

However, the memorandum on nursing mothers that was issued in response stated that 10 pumps had been purchased for inmate use; in addition, breast milk could not be stored or transported out of the jail. This policy was described as "temporary in nature" while a permanent solution is worked out.

Calderón, a frequent critic of jail policies and practices, was at that same community forum, and she said she was surprised by the story. As a member of the gender equity committee, she had thought inmates already had access to pumps.

The committee had started out working on ways to help female deputies pump on the job and thought that inmates got access to pumps as part of that process.

"We wanted the milk to get to the babies," she said. "We were told that was too ambitious. Let's start slowly. Just get the pumps to the female inmates."

Calderón said it turned out that until recently, nursing women had to express their milk by hand in the shower or allow their supply to dry up.

Calderón expressed frustration that the work of the gender equity committee had stalled out, and meetings stopped occurring back in June. Now, as a result of the nursing mothers policy being raised, the committee is meeting again.

"It's difficult to get any kind of change even though we all know it should be changed," she said. "This policy is a no-brainer policy, and there are much more progressive models out there in other cities. Really it's the will, and it's a matter of priorities. We know that women's needs in Denver's jails have been subordinated since the inception."

Calderón said there is no tracking or data about how many women in Denver jail are nursing or have recently given birth. She believes the number is small enough that addressing their needs wouldn't be a major administrative burden, but their needs and those of their children still deserve attention.

Women end up in jail through a variety of circumstances, including for crimes as minor as not paying a ticket or failing to show up to court. Poor women accused of low-level crimes often stay in jail due to inability to pay relatively small bond amounts.

"These nursing mothers aren't necessarily convicted women," Calderón said. "If you get arrested for an unpaid traffic ticket that turned into a warrant and you're nursing mom, you need a breast pump. ... There needs to be a way for women who have not been convicted of any crime to address what is a medical issue.

"And for women who are convicted, their babies still have needs. They still need to be nurtured and fed. We shouldn't be a society that punishes babies because their mothers are incarcerated."

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