VA Prison Officials Turn Working Moms into Smugglers

Nurse in SE Virginia prison smuggles disassembled breast pump after facing repeated roadblocks to legal pumping.

(This article is excerpted from a story by Natalie Kitroeff in the January 6, 2019 New York Times.)

CAPRON, Va. — At 3 a.m. on a frigid night in January 2017, Susan Van Son, a nurse at the Deerfield Correctional Center in southeastern Virginia, left the prison’s medical department and walked through a series of eight locked doors. At a security checkpoint, she made sure that the normal guards — the ones known for breezily waving employees through the metal detectors — were on duty. Then, risking her livelihood, she headed to the prison’s parking lot.

A breast pump sat on the passenger seat of her gray Honda Accord. Ms. Van Son unscrewed the pump’s handle and shoved it into her bra.

Retracing her steps, she strolled back into the prison, past an indifferent guard, and hid the contraband on a shelf in the pharmacy. Over the next two nights, she sneaked in every piece of the pump, save for one. Ms. Van Son’s breasts weren’t big enough to conceal the funnel, so she enlisted a better-endowed colleague to shuttle it in for her.

Sounds like some plot from a B movie, no? Well, again, Virginia finds itself lagging in ensuring that the law is followed. “Failing to provide hourly workers with break time and a private place to pump is often a violation of federal law. The Affordable Care Act tried to solve the problem.; it required employers to provide breaks and a private place other than a bathroom for almost all hourly workers to pump. But the law didn’t apply to most women who earn annual salaries. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation extending the benefits to white-collar workers, but according to a report released December 31 by the University of California-Hastings College of the Law, there are still five million women of childbearing age without the right to pump at work.”

As the author points out, this is not simply a matter of convenience. “There are health consequences for potentially millions of families. There is consensus among doctors that breast-feeding tends to make both mothers and their children healthier. Controlling for socioeconomic factors, studies find that babies who consume breast milk are at lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome, infections, allergies, asthma, childhood diabetes and two types of leukemia. Mothers who breast-feed or pump are at lower risk for breast and ovarian cancers, diabetes and hypertension.

Yet the United States has one of the lowest breast-feeding rates of any industrialized nation. One reason is that, unlike every other developed country, the government doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. And once back at work, many women find that their employers make it virtually impossible to pump.” 

Other women also smuggled their devices in, because the prison didn’t allow them to bring breast pumps into their work space, inside the security perimeter.

When women have sued their employers, federal judges in Iowa and Rhode Island have suggested there was no effective way of punishing the companies in court. The A.C.A., also known as Obamacare, does not allow workers to sue for punitive damages or compensation for emotional and physical harm after being denied space or time to pump.

“The results can be humiliating and physically painful. Women who choose to breast-feed babies who are less than 6 months old have to express milk every few hours. If they don’t, their breasts can become swollen and infected, and they may dry up.” 

Women in historically male-dominated professions often face the greatest obstacles: for example, five female pilots filed employment discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Frontier Airlines. In the case of one of the five, the airline simply ignored her 10 emails seeking to modify her schedule to allow time to pump. Stories such as this abound, in many professions all over the country.

Back to Virginia. Deerfield is 70 miles south of Richmond, and is the nursing home of the Virginia Department of Corrections. It houses hundreds of male offenders, many geriatric, who need constant medical care, including treating inmates injured in cane fights, wheelchair tippings, and other medical emergencies. Security rules at Deerfield prohibit anything that isn’t transparent from entering the facility; electric breast pumps are opaque, and have plenty of places where drugs or weapons could be stashed. The administrators at Armor Correctional, a private contractor that manages medical services at the facility, said that an electric pump could be used in the men’s restroom, just outside the prison’s security checkpoint.

But it was hard to produce milk because of the stench and the prison guards constantly rapping at the door. When asked about using a transparent pump in a private location inside the facility, the assistant warden refused. A spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections said the agency was “working to determine what communication may have occurred between the referenced health services employees” and Deerfield staff. Armor Correctional did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ms. Van Son, who no longer works at the prison, leaves us with this coda:

I tried to do it the right way and I was met with zero response. I was going to do what I had to do to continue pumping. They weren’t going to stand in my way. Period.

Isn’t it time to stop relying on rules as a way of saying No and, instead, find a way to say Yes to human concerns?

Categories: Health Care, Issues, Local, National, State

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