Public Health New Mexico
2:18 pm
Mon June 2, 2014

Local Advocates Fight for Incarcerated New Mothers

Credit Art by Nani Chacon courtesy of Young Women United

A local advocacy organization is looking at reforming the way the judicial system treats women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Young Women United traveled to Santa Fe last week to make four recommendations to the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee. Among them, judges should acknowledge pregnancy and lactation status when determining the conditions of bond or release.

As things stand, that’s not on the list of factors a judge must consider, though lawyers may argue the point. The list does include a broader topic “family ties.”

  Micaela Cadena is the policy director for Young Women United. She said pregnant or lactating women should be in their communities, not in jail awaiting their plea bargains or hearings. “One of the concerns that we have is if somebody’s locked up for a few days, takes a couple days to post bail or bond and may be a breastfeeding mother, in that time span her milk may have dried up, and she may have lost her milk supply,” she said.

Young Women United is calling for detention facilities to create a policy that facilitates lactating inmates. Cadena says no such policy exists within the state’s prisons or at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center.

Alex Tomlin, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said female inmates are allowed to breast feed, or to pump and store their milk. But there isn’t a standard for how it would work, she added, and it would have to be offered on a case-by-case basis with child safety as the first priority. Tomlin said no inmate has requested to go through the planning process.

The Department of Corrections is also working on a nursery program, where, depending the amount of time a prisoner has left to serve, a new baby might be able to stay with mom inside the prison.

The number of female inmates has spiked in the last couple of years, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission. It’s only about one-tenth of the male population, but projections indicate the number of male inmates is growing more slowly. Last week the prison in Grants, N.M.—the only women’s facility in the state—held 673 prisoners.

The group is asking the state to request policies on pregnancy, prenatal care and lactation from all of the detention facilities in New Mexico.

Young Women United also wants judges to consider house arrest for pregnant women and new mothers. “We know in New Mexico and across the country that the majority of women are there for drug- and property-related crimes,” Cadena said. “To put some of these candidates on electronic monitoring saves the state a lot of money.”

Electronic monitoring racks up about one-tenth the price of incarceration, and it reduces recidivism, she said. Plus, Cadena added, if a new mother has access to resources in her community while on house arrest, she can spend that time working on her family. 

Young Women United is also recommending the Children Youth and Families Department create a policy on breastfeeding.

Organizers expect to see their proposals carried forward in the next legislative session. These efforts are part of a campaign to humanize women and families coping with addiction.