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Women's Birthing Rights, Women's Bodies, Women's Health

Mom in Charlotte, NC Jail on “Immigration Hold” — Not Allowed to Pump Milk

Danielle Souza Ferreira, 29, a Brazilian immigrant, was arrested recently in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the local mall. Her brother was with her and, unbeknownst to her, he had hidden a CD in the pocket of her stroller, which contained her two babies. When the two left the store, they were arrested for shoplifting.  Ferreiro was then jailed on an “immigration hold.” Her visa expired in 2005 and she had been scheduled for a deportation hearing, but she had signed a waiver stating she was returning to Brazil voluntarily and wanted to forego the hearing. She already had purchased airline tickets for herself, her brother and her two children, who were born in the U.S., and she was scheduled to leave in a month’s time. Nevertheless, because of the expired visa, she was arrested and is languishing in jail waiting to be turned over to immigration officials once the shoplifting charge is handled.

Her two-month-old, Samuel, is breastfed and was abruptly separated from  her.  Jail officials will not allow her to pump out the milk which is engorged in her breasts.  She is feverish and she is in great pain.  Her 2-month old, being cared for by a friend lest police make good on their promise to turn the babies over to social services, is refusing formula, spitting it up, crying, and doing poorly.

Even though just this month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement formally adopted guidelines that allow pregnant women or nursing mothers to be released from custody under supervised conditions, Ferreiro is still being held. Jail policy, officials say, is that breastfeeding mothers may not pump their milk without a court order.  The mothers are “treated” for “symptoms” when they must stop nursing abruptly.

This is inhumane, this is cruel and unusual punishment, it is misogynist, it is torture. It is unbelievably painful to be forced to stop breastfeeding abruptly, especially at two-months post-partum when milk supply for a baby who is fed only mother’s milk is generally abundant.   On average, depending on the baby’s weight, a mother of a two-month-old will  produce 28-32 ounces of milk per day.  After two or three missed feedings, as the breasts fill up with a quart or so of unexpressed milk, women experience painful engorgement. After two or three additional missed feedings without pumping, serious infection can set in. Anyone who has ever had a breast infection knows how painful and debilitating these are. You become extremely ill with fever and chills, your entire body aches, and your breasts are exquisitely painful and tender.  Over time, they will blister and peel. If the infection goes too long untreated, you may develop abscesses in the breasts which require surgery.

Yet the jail requires a court order to allow the mother to pump her milk! Best case scenario, it takes several days to obtain a court order. An attorney who is willing to represent the mother must first be found, hired, paid and consulted. The attorney then has to draw up the necessary court pleadings, schedule a hearing before the judge and present the motion. Finally the judge signs the order — or not — and it must be presented to jail officials. This is not something which can happen quickly, especially in a large metropolitan area where courts are busy. And who knows what “treatment” this jail might be providing for this woman– probably pain relievers and that’s it.

It is a desperately sick society that treats its most vulnerable members — breastfeeding mothers and their infants, immigrants, women of color — with such callous disregard. So far as I’m concerned, this is torture. If only heads would roll over this.  They will not.  In fact, the woman will be blamed for every indignity and for all of her suffering.


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8 thoughts on “Mom in Charlotte, NC Jail on “Immigration Hold” — Not Allowed to Pump Milk

  1. I honestly have no words. I assume there’s nothing stopping her hand-expressing into a sink or whatever, to ease some of the pressure and engorgement. But to watch that ‘liquid gold’ flowing down the drain would be heartbreaking in itself. I wish I could say “I can’t believe this is happening to her,” but I can, and that is just terrible.

    Posted by Anji | November 29, 2007, 10:12 pm
  2. I was wondering that too, Anji, but it sounds like the rule is no pumping at all? Even with your hands? Then, too, a lot of women have a terrible time pumping with their hands, and it’s especially hard once your breasts are engorged.

    Posted by womensspace | November 29, 2007, 11:51 pm
  3. She was released.

    She was poor. She was being held in jail because she couldn’t make $500 bond and to hold her for immigration authorities.


    Posted by womensspace | November 30, 2007, 12:02 am
  4. Very glad she was released.

    Aside from the outrageous and indefensible jail policy on nursing mothers, how about that stupid brother of hers? Stealing a CD and hiding it in her stroller, getting her thrown in jail along with his guilty self. With brothers like him who needs enemies?

    Posted by Branjor | November 30, 2007, 4:22 am
  5. So true re the brother, Branjor! Argh.

    Posted by womensspace | November 30, 2007, 4:55 am
  6. Thank goodness for that!
    I also wondered about expressing by hand, though I know it’s difficult (and painful, once engorged).
    Why would it not be allowed? That is insane.

    Two days is enough to not only cause infection (and often permanent damage to that side, with resulting loss of production), but the engorgement on its own can reduce production long-term, creating a situation where she can no longer fully feed the baby. You’ll know more how this works in humans than I do, Heart – I’m the cow expert 🙂

    About the only ‘symptom’ you missed there is the most serious side effect – death.
    Mastitis is one of those things that if you can possibly prevent it, you do, because treatment will never restore the mammary tissue to what it was before.

    Posted by Sophie | November 30, 2007, 9:45 am
  7. Sophie, so true, re the way mastitis affects milk production. It’s going to be tough for her now to get her production where it needs to be for her baby, not to mention how fripping painful it’s going to be, so she may end up having to supplement, which is so upsetting, given that she is poor and that she was giving her baby the best possible nutrition at no extra cost to herself besides the cost of having to eat a little better than she usually does (and even if she didn’t, she’d still make good milk for her baby.)

    I was remembering my last bout with mastitis, probably eight years or so ago now– the fiery red streaks all over my breast and chest, the blistering, the fever, having to breastfeed anyway, so miserable.


    Posted by womensspace | November 30, 2007, 5:05 pm
  8. This reminds me of a case in Nebraska a month ago where the parents of a newborn didn’t want their baby to have blood drawn for testing. A judge ordered custody of the baby to be taken away from the parents so the blood could be taken, and custody wasn’t granted back to the parents until the results of the test were received. The mother of the baby was denied the right to visit her baby more than three times a day to breast feed, and was denied visiting the baby at night at all.

    The part that really blows your mind is that the judge who ordered all of this is a woman herself. The parents didn’t want the baby to have the mandatory state test on religious grounds.

    Posted by nike2422 | December 2, 2007, 4:38 am

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