Small Change In Illinois Prisons A Big Deal For Some New Moms Behind Bars

A woman holds a bag of frozen breast milk.
A woman holds a bag of frozen breast milk. AP Photo/Matt Rourke
A woman holds a bag of frozen breast milk.
A woman holds a bag of frozen breast milk. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Small Change In Illinois Prisons A Big Deal For Some New Moms Behind Bars

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Updated 3:30 p.m.

Emily French gave birth while incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center in February 2019. After two days with her new baby, French says they were separated — the baby went home, and French had to stay behind bars.

“That was the worst experience of my entire life, like something from a nightmare,” said French. “When I watched him bounce away in his carrier, I just wailed.”

French was worried that missing the essential early days of her child’s life would make it difficult to bond. She had a short sentence and would be home in a few months but wanted to do everything she could to be a good mom from behind bars. For her, that included providing her son with breast milk, and so every three hours or so, she would go to the health care unit at Logan and step into the shower and pump. The prison froze the milk and then family drove three-and-a-half hours to pick it up.

When her son was 5 days old, the family brought him back in for a visit. French was expecting to breast feed him and so didn’t pump. But staff told her, she wouldn’t be allowed to breastfeed her son in the visiting room. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, say this was the policy at the time. French said her breasts were painfully full and she was forced to express her milk into a bathroom sink..

“When you are sitting in the visiting room in a prison, across from your child that you can’t do anything, it’s the worst feeling,” she said.

Being able to feed him felt like one tiny way she could connect when so much else was working against them. She said she felt guilty and heartbroken. With the help of a family member, she got in contact with the ACLU. The organization wrote a letter to the Illinois Department of Corrections arguing that the visitation guidelines, which prohibited “any display of nudity, including breastfeeding” violated state law.

“Ms. French, other inmates, and visitors to IDOC facilities are guaranteed the right to breastfeed in ‘any location, public or private’ where they are otherwise authorized to be by the Illinois Right to Breastfeed Act,” read the letter. “The Illinois legislature indicated that its purpose in passing the Right to Breastfeed Act was not only because of the nutritional value that breastfeeding offers infants, but also because it improves bonding between mothers and infants.”

The letter also pointed out that the Federal Bureau of Prisons had already amended their guidelines specifically to allow for breastfeeding.

In response to the letter, the Illinois Department of Corrections said it would change its policy. A new directive for Logan Correctional now says that visitors and prisoners will have the ability to breastfeed, though the “expectation is that the mother is to practice modesty in front of others by using a blanket or towel.”

A spokesperson for the department said that the changes at Logan Correctional Center were made to create a more welcoming environment and that the department is working to change the policy for all facilities across the state.

French was paroled before the changes, but said when the ACLU contacted her to tell her the news, she was proud to have been a part of making it happen.

Amy Meek, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Illinois, wrote the letter on French’s behalf.

“We’re thrilled that the department has taken this important step to recognize the rights of breastfeeding parents. This is one important reproductive decision that needs to be recognized by the department,” said Meek.

However, Meek said, breastfeeding is far from the only concern for parents behind bars. And that the work of finding ways to allow more parents to remain connected to their families continues.

Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.