Breastfeeding at Denver County Jail: A Call to End "Pump and Dump"

Denver's Citizen Oversight Board is calling on the Denver Sheriff Department to allow nursing mothers in custody to provide breast milk to their infants rather than discarding it in an approach known as "pump and dump."

"We're making this recommendation because we think it's the best practice," says Katina Banks, the board's chair, "and we're encouraging the department to consider it — and to make sure that the children are fed."

When and if that will happen is unclear at present. Daelene Mix, a Denver Manager of Safety spokesperson communicating on behalf of the DSD, notes via email that "the Denver Sheriff Department strives to provide services that aid the well-being of inmates and support their successful reentry into the community. Assisting with inmate breastfeeding considerations is one such service." But she acknowledges that an interim policy in place right now isn't providing infants with milk from their mothers, and prior to its creation, breast pumps weren't available to nursing jailees. In her words, "Inmates who were breastfeeding were referred to medical personnel for guidance on expressing milk, which was generally done manually by the inmate."

As noted in a letter sent by the board to Sheriff Patrick Firman (it's accessible below), the department has faced embarrassing publicity over breastfeeding at least once before. In November 2014, controversy erupted after a Denver deputy told a woman nursing in the lobby of the Downtown Detention Center that she either had to stop doing so or move to the bathroom — and in the incident's wake, the department issued a memo stating that "all public areas within DSD controlled facilities are to be considered public places where a mother has the right to be."

Nearly three years later, on September 21, the Citizen Oversight Board held its quarterly forum, and during the meeting, an attendee complained on behalf of a woman who was breastfeeding a three-week-old when she was taken into custody. Those close to the woman brought the baby and a breast pump to the jail, but a deputy is said to have forbidden the inmate from either directly nursing the child or pumping milk to be provided later.

Sheriff Firman was at the meeting, Banks confirms, and he had personnel investigate the report. However, no discipline was imposed on the deputy in question. "The sheriff department looked into the matter and determined that while the information could have been better communicated, no misconduct occurred," Mix writes.

Later that month, the department distributed a temporary memorandum announcing the purchase of ten breast pumps for inmates to use, as well as what Mix describes as "daily access to a private space free from intrusion and the option of retaining the pump as a personal item upon release." According to her, the memo "is based on recommendations provided by the department's Gender Equity Commission, which includes participation from community stakeholders, following its research of national best practices and consultation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health and a breastfeeding specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment."

click to enlarge Denver County Jail. - FILE PHOTO
Denver County Jail.
File photo
Mix stresses that "the memorandum was put in place as a temporary measure, with the understanding that the Commission would take additional steps to develop a policy after assessing the possibility of providing a comprehensive approach to lactation services. Discussions with the department’s current medical provider are taking place regarding its role and the Commission is speaking with other jurisdictions who offer these services to understand the structure that is needed to provide lactation services in a secure environment. The goal is to implement a policy as soon as possible."

In the meantime, though, breast milk isn't reaching the babies of inmates. "At this time, the Department cannot store or transport any expressed milk," the memo states. For that reason, "all milk will need to be disposed of down a sink."

"At this time, the sheriff department is only able to support nursing mothers in maintaining their milk supply," Mix confirms. "It does not have the equipment or expertise required to safely store and transport expressed milk."

In Banks's view, this policy is an improvement over the previous approach from the perspective of nursing mothers' physical well-being. "The pumps relieve some of the pain and stress when a mother is expressing milk," she says. But simply getting rid of the milk strikes her, and the rest of the board, as tremendously wasteful, particularly in light of health benefits for children that the letter documents.

As such, Banks says, "our recommendation as a board is either to allow the transportation of the milk that is pumped to a caretaker for the child or to allow for actual breastfeeding — letting the child come to the facility to be breastfed."

The DSD isn't thrilled by the latter suggestion, in particular.

"We've had some conversations with the sheriff," Banks points out, "and allowing for the infants to come into the facility isn't really an option, because in-person visitation isn't permitted."

That leaves transporting the milk, although Mix is noncommittal about the concept. In her words, "the Gender Equity Commission has been assessing if breastfeeding services can be extended to include storage and transport. Providing these services in a jail setting is complex and must include considerations around privacy, security and appropriate lactation support."

For her part, Banks says "I don't want to prejudice this by suggesting one idea over the other. I think it's worthwhile for the department to look at both options. We don't presume to know everything about how they would implement this. But it's our expectation that the department would figure out a way to feed the children."

Click to read the Citizen Oversight Board letter to Sheriff Firman about nursing mothers.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts