Northwest Mothers Milk Bank (NWMMB) is helping to remove barriers to breastfeeding for incarcerated mothers throughout the state of Oregon.
According to the Oregon Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents (ORS 423.160), children have a right:
"To be cared for in the absence of the child's parent in a way that prioritizes the child's physical, metal, and emotional needs."
Adults in custody at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF) who are enrolled in the breastfeeding program are offered lactation support and a mechanism for transporting expressed breastmilk safely to their infant through our Expression of Care program.
A mother’s own milk is the best nutrition for her infant. Rich in antibodies, proteins, and fats, human milk protects an infant from disease and establishes a healthy microbiome, forever connecting mother and child. Infants receiving breastmilk have reduced risks of asthma, obesity, Type 1 diabetes, severe lower respiratory disease, ear infections, and gastrointestinal infections (diarrhea/vomiting).
More than 200,000 women are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. The female prison population is disproportionately made up of women of color, women in poverty, and women who have experienced trauma and abuse. It is estimated that 80% of women in prison are mothers, and 10% are pregnant at the time of incarceration. Prison populations in Oregon have seen an increase in the rate of incarceration for women, particularly those of childbearing age. Adults in custody who are pregnant and will deliver their infant during their period of incarceration face many hardships providing breastmilk, particularly when there is no option but to separate them from their child.
The Expression of Care Program extends our mission by increasing access to human milk and improving the health of underserved populations. In 2018, NWMMB began working with The Family Preservation Project and a group of Portland State University students from the Department of Public Health as part of a breastfeeding-centered capstone project. The students focused on identifying the barriers experienced by incarcerated women who were lactating.
Our team was allowed the opportunity to talk with CCCF staff and adults in custody that had been previously enrolled in the breastfeeding program. We heard their stories, and uncovered challenges they faced while pumping breastmilk in prison. Mothers shared that having the opportunity to pump their milk helped them to feel closer to their babies, and that they felt they were playing a key role in the health of their infants. We learned that supplying their own milk collection containers and arranging transportation of their pumped milk presented the most significant barriers to breastfeeding success. Adults in custody come from all geographic regions in Oregon, and relying on their families to make weekly trips to the facility to pick up stored milk or drop off milk storage containers presented many financial and logistical hardships.
Through conversations, the students also discovered that the staff at the Department of Human Services (DHS), who play a role in arranging custody for the infants of incarcerated mothers, had a need for educational materials and training services to support caregivers about the importance of breastmilk, milk storage, and guidelines for feeding breastmilk to infants in their care.
Once challenges were clearly identified, we collaboratively began working on solutions. The capstone students prepared a presentation that was focused on services that could be easily implemented by NWMMB and would reduce barriers to breastfeeding, support incarcerated parents and their infants’ caretakers, and reduce the workload of prison staff. The Family Preservation Project was instrumental in helping to convene meetings with staff from the Oregon Department of Justice, CCCF and DHS.
In 2019, NWMMB received an Immediate Impact grant from the Women’s Foundation of Oregon to implement the program. The financial support was used to develop a logo, create printed materials, purchase a freezer, and purchase milk collection and shipping containers. NWMMB accepts financial donations and unopened boxes of milk collection bags from community members who wish to support this essential program. Support our work with the Expression of Care Program here.
“Being able to pick up breastmilk weekly at the prison would have been impossible for our family. Giving my grandson his mother’s milk everyday brought happiness and a lot of comfort.”
— M.M., infant caregiver
As of March of 2022, NWMMB has served over 24 incarcerated adults housed at Oregon county jails or at CCCF. Shipments and/or deliveries of 170 containers of frozen breastmilk have been made to infant caregivers throughout the Pacific Northwest. Incarcerated mothers have used more than 6,000 milk collection bags and have received breast pump sanitation supplies and instruction. The program has replaced pump parts and provided replacement pumps for those damaged or broken. NWMMB staff make weekly visits to CCCF to collect frozen breastmilk and return it to the milk bank, where it is safely stored in a program- dedicated freezer. The frozen milk is then shipped or delivered to designated and approved infant caregivers. NWMMB staff contact caregivers weekly, providing shipping details and answering questions about the storage, handling, and feeding of human milk.
On April 19th, 2022, NWMMB will be participating in a webinar titled “Support through Separation: Coping with the Physical and Emotional Separation for the Birthing Person and Baby During Incarceration”, presented by the National University Collaborative on the Health of Justice-Involved Women and Children. During the webinar, we will be sharing our work in supporting families and children of incarcerated mothers. Join us by registering here and learning more about our program.