Bonding Behind Bars

The Travis County jail is one of four nationwide — and the only in Texas — to allow new moms to breastfeed in custody.

Last year, the Travis County jail began allowing new moms to breastfeed while in custody. One woman tells the <I>Observer</i> that getting to spend that time with her son motivated her to finish college and quit using drugs.
Jenny Elia Pfeiffer/Corbis/AP Images
Last year, the Travis County jail began allowing new moms to breastfeed while in custody. One woman tells the Observer that getting to spend that time with her son motivated her to finish college and quit using drugs.

Christa Meyertons had been locked up for three months at the Travis County jail when she went into labor and was rushed to the hospital. While a guard looked on, the 21-year-old Austinite gave birth to her son, Eric. After four days of recovery, she and Eric went their separate ways. She returned to jail and he went home with Meyertons’ parents.

“I wanted to be there for all the normal things, like seeing him take his first bath,” Meyertons said in an interview at the jail. “When they took him away and I had to come back here, it was really heartbreaking.”

But there was one way Meyertons was able to step into her parenting role. In 2014, the Travis County jail began allowing new mothers who deliver their babies while in custody, or are lactating at the time of booking, to breastfeed their newborns in jail up to twice a day, four days a week. The women are given a private space to nurse and an hour or two to be intimate with their babies.

According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, 300 to 500 pregnant women are booked in county jails every month, and dozens give birth while in custody every year.

The Travis County jail is one of just four county jails in the nation — and the only one in Texas — that allows breastfeeding on-site.

“It was my escape,” Meyertons said of her breastfeeding sessions. “You have those thoughts: ‘What if he doesn’t recognize me? What if he thinks my mom is his mom?’ Now, he knows I’m his mom.”

Since the 1980s, the number of women behind bars in the United States has more than quadrupled, putting pressure on jails and prisons to accommodate the special needs of women, especially pregnant and postpartum mothers. The increase in incarcerated women has also resulted in more children being separated from their mothers, which research shows creates a greater risk for anxiety and depression in children.

The breastfeeding program gives mothers a chance to bond with their infants and helps babies reap the health benefits of breastfeeding, said Jennifer Scott, social services program coordinator at the Travis County jail.

So far, only two women have breastfed at the jail. That’s partially a function of the transient nature of the county jail population. Women are typically only in county lockups for a few weeks, so the likelihood of delivery is low.

Advocates want to see more jails take steps to preserve and strengthen the ties between incarcerated mothers and their children.

“It’s in the interest of everybody to really assist a woman in that situation to rebuild her life and create a healthy home for her child,” said Diana Claitor, director of the nonprofit Texas Jail Project.

After three months of breastfeeding Eric in jail, Meyertons was released on probation. I spoke with her on the day of her release. She said spending so much time with Eric had motivated her to finish college and quit using drugs.

“I would have been a lot worse off in here,” she said. “I want to be there for my son.”

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

Published at 9:00 am CST
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