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.