Imagine you’re the mother of an infant. And you pump breast milk every day to nourish your newborn. Then you discover that, despite your effort, your baby has actually been given someone else’s milk. That’s what happened to inmates at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. That’s Oregon’s only prison for women. The Oregonian’s Laura Gunderson uncovered this story and joined All Things Considered host Kate Davidson to talk about the mix-up. To hear their full conversation, click play in the audio player above.
Q&A with The Oregonian's Laura Gunderson
Kate Davidson: What exactly happened at Coffee Creek?
Laura Gunderson: Well, there were four women in the program right now. These are women who were incarcerated and then gave birth. They don't actually have the babies there at the facility. But they have the babies, and then the babies go to family members or to case workers or to foster families, who care for them. And to try to keep that bond going and do what they can for their babies while they are at Coffee Creek, the women are allowed to breast feed. They each have their own pumps, and they pump several times throughout the day, take the milk to the medical center, and the medical center nurses put them in a freezer.
I heard from one of the inmates, a woman named Trisha Mart, who discovered from her husband on the outside that when he had gone to feed the baby – everything had been fine – he thought he had fed the baby, he came back and saw that the empty bag on the kitchen counter had another inmate's name on it.
KD: How was it marked? Was it a formal label or a marker?
LG: It really seems to vary. That was a sticker with somebody's name on it. Trisha had always written her name on it, but I don't think the family recognized at that point it was something they should be checking. There didn't seem to be a rule that when you've submitted your bag to medical center that it had to have a name on it. So when the nurses distributed the milk to the families — the families have to come weekly to pick up the milk – they distribute them into ice chests for the family, and it appeared that when that would happen, there was, you know, confusion, and that families were getting anybody's milk.
When I got the letter from Trisha telling me about this, what struck me is that this is kind of the essence of what a prison is supposed to do: be very clear about what comes in and what goes out.
KD: So we're talking about at least four inmates involved in this breast-feeding program. Is there any health risk to the babies that might occur from having another mother's milk?
LG: Well, definitely the women involved in the program were concerned because they knew at least one of the other inmates had self-reported she had Hep C, Hepatitis C. They also had concerns because, of course, there are women who take medications, both that they have been told to take, but others, they say, take them as contraband, and in addition to medications, also drugs.
KD: Have you talked to any doctors who might indicate whether there is an actual health risk to the babies?
LG: The likelihood seems low. It's more likely that a baby would contract Hepatitis C because its mother had it, and it was something that, in bearing the baby, that's why the baby would have Hep C. There is a small chance that it can be contracted through breast milk, and the doctors I spoke to were pretty sure that probably these babies were OK, but they won't know for sure until 18 months when they can do the test that most accurately tells you whether or not that that disease has been passed on.
KD: I think listeners hearing this right now might think it can't be that hard to correctly label a bag of breast milk. Do you have a sense of whether this was just a systems failure or whether it says something deeper about a cultural problem at the prison?
LG: Well, it struck me as both. The Department of Corrections said that they have addressed this, that they now will not take the milk unless there is a name on it, and they have two nurses who will check through the process that they distribute the ice chest to the family. But at least one of the inmates, a woman named Marcie Harris, felt that throughout the process that she was complaining, that she was punished for complaining, and she was told not to talk about it, not to talk about it to the other mothers or her family or her lawyer. And she felt that that scared her.
KD: Has anything come to light since your first story was published?
LG: Yes. I've definitely heard from another inmate, who says that she and others during the program's time in 2013 had the same experience, and that definitely contradicts what I have heard from the Department of Corrections, who says this is a one-time thing that only happened a couple of times. I know from the inmates today that it happened many times, and it also opened up the issue that families on the outside felt as if they weren't being heard. They were trying to advocate for their family members inside, and they didn't feel they were being listened to.