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Hicks, Dossett study breastfeeding accommodations for incarcerated women

The Senate Public Safety Committee heard from breastfeeding advocates, experts and philanthropists Tuesday regarding the benefits of breastfeeding and programs other states have implemented to increase health outcomes for incarcerated women and their babies.

Requested by Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, and hosted by Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, the study dove into why breastfeeding is critical for both mother and baby the first six months of life, what it would take to implement a breastfeeding program in Oklahoma prisons, and how other states have implemented programs to increase mother and baby outcomes.

“Breastfeeding is extremely important for both mother and baby, and it’s been scientifically proven to decrease the chances of a myriad of health problems for women and children,” Dossett said. “Providing nursing accommodations to incarcerated women can help reduce health care costs, increase the bond between mother and child and provide motivation to turn their life around once they have served their sentence.”

According to Becky Manuel, board chair of the Coalition for Oklahoma Breastfeeding Advocates (COBA), adhering to optimal breastfeeding recommendations of exclusively breastfeeding for a child’s first six months of life would prevent 2,619 maternal deaths and 721 child deaths annually across the nation. With Oklahoma ranking consistently in the bottom of the nation for maternal and infant mortality, more women breastfeeding their babies could significantly decrease health care costs and increase outcomes across the state.

While there’s been no program implemented to allow women to pump breastmilk or breastfeed their babies while incarcerated in Oklahoma, it has been brought up before, noted Justin Wolf, Department of Corrections chief administrator of communications and government relations.

He shared there have been 17 births by inmates in Oklahoma prisons thus far in 2021. When women are discharged from OU Medical Center after delivery, they are returned back to the correctional facility in which they are housed. However, these women are not currently supplied with the ability to pump milk for their child.

Wolf cited that logistics are the biggest roadblock in a program like this, including how to store the pumped milk and deliver the milk to the person caring for the baby once it has been expressed.

While there are a handful of states with pumping programs for incarcerated mothers, Alabama is home to one of the top in the nation. Ashley Lovell and Chauntel Norris with the Alabama Prison Birth Project spoke to the committee on how they’ve implemented their breastfeeding program within the state.

The pair reiterated the practical benefits of such a program include better mental health outcomes and hormonal regulation for the mother, leading to better behavior; health cost savings for both the child and mother; increased likelihood of recruiting future breast feeders and an increased connection to children, leading to lower recidivism rates.

In Alabama, a dedicated nursing room is provided for women to express their milk quietly and privately. Once they are finished, the milk is stored and prepped to be shipped overnight on dry ice to the infant’s primary caregiver. Supplies are donated by the community, and the only resources needed from the prison are a nurse or guard to unlock and lock the room and fridge once it’s time for the nursing mother to pump and store her milk.

The pair cited initial startup costs for the project were about $4,100, including space, pumps, a sink, lockers and a freezer. The yearly maintenance costs are about $5,200, including staff time, shipping and supplies. Costs vary depending on the size of the program and the number of mothers participating.

“I was thrilled the Alabama Prison Birth Project co-directors Chauntel and Ashley could join us for our study,” Hicks said. “This program has been a huge success in Alabama and could absolutely be replicated here in Oklahoma. I’m looking forward to diving further into this issue and building coalitions for a solution to help new mothers provide milk for their babies even while in prison.”

Legislation for the 2022 legislative session must be filed by Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. The Second Session of the 58th Legislature is set to convene at noon on Monday, Feb. 7.