In July, there was some bright news when Emily French successfully pressured the Illinois Department of Corrections to change a harsh and unfair policy denying parents the ability to breastfeed their children in visitation rooms. We were pleased to help Emily in this effort.  

Emily gave birth to her son in February 2019 while serving an approximately seven-month sentence at Logan Correctional Facility in Lincoln. She nursed her son during the short period of time she was able to spend with him before the two were separated. After that, Emily regularly pumped breast milk, which family members arranged to collect and deliver to feed her infant son.  

But when Emily’s aunt brought the baby to see his mother at Logan, the family was told that she would not be allowed to breastfeed her son during their visits. Instead of being able to bond with her son, she was forced to go into a bathroom and express her breastmilk into a sink.

The ban was a clear violation of the Illinois Right to Breastfeed Act, which guarantees that a parent who chooses to breastfeed has the right to nurse their infant in any location – public or private – where they are otherwise authorized to be. When Emily and the ACLU of Illinois raised the issue with the State, IDOC agreed to revise its policies to allow parents to breastfeed their infants during visits to the facility - a welcome and proactive change.

Unfortunately, we wish we could point to more success stories when it comes to incarcerated parents, both here in Illinois and across the country. Nationwide, there have been multiple recent reports of horrific instances of women going into labor and ultimately giving birth alone in a jail cell without any medical assistance. 

A woman in Denver, captured by security footage writhing in pain while she screamed for help, ignored for over five hours as she gave birth alone.

Another woman in Florida, who spent seven hours without medication or seeing a doctor in an isolation cell, finally forced to crouch down and catch her own baby as she gave birth.

These horror stories are unfortunately consistent with larger troubling patterns of the reproductive health needs of people detained in prisons and jails being disrespected and disregarded. 

Shackling of inmates during pregnancy and even childbirth. 

Exorbitant prices charged for menstrual products. 

Pregnant inmates denied abortions by state officials.  

As women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, it is more important than ever that reproductive health care is taken seriously within prisons and jails.

Fortunately, we now have a new tool in Illinois to safeguard the reproductive rights of those in prison or jail.  Earlier this year, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act, a law which establishes the fundamental right of every person in Illinois to make decisions about reproductive health. 

The law specifically states that protections against the government interfering with this fundamental right extends to people who are under State custody, control or supervision – such as people who are incarcerated in state prisons or in county jails.  

However, just because the law on the books provides protections doesn’t mean that people’s rights are respected in practice. We know we need to be vigilant to ensure that the health needs of people in prisons and jails in Illinois are truly and adequately met. 

This is why the ACLU of Illinois brought a lawsuit to challenge inadequate medical and dental care for people in Illinois prisons, so bad that many died preventable deaths.

It’s why we have sued to improve the appalling treatment of prisoners with gender dysphoria, where the Illinois Department of Corrections routinely and dangerously denies hormone therapy and other medical care.

The Reproductive Health Act creates an opportunity for the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, and county sheriffs across our state to assess their policies and practices and make sure that they are following the highest standards of care when it comes to protecting the reproductive health of all.

We will be watching.

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