Women in Prisons
CLOSE TO HOME: Women are hidden in state prison crisis
Published: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 at 3:00
We are facing a correctional crisis in California that is unparalleled in other states. With prisons at or above 200 percent of capacity and federal court intervention imminent, a hidden aspect of corrections is the plight of incarcerated women.
Relative to men, the number of women in state prison may seem small. But, at more than 11,000, female prisoners are a growing and significant population, currently the largest in any state. Additionally, there are almost as many women locked up in county jails. The net result is more than 22,000 women in custody.
Not only are women prisoners hidden, their pathways to prison are often neglected and not addressed. Additionally, women have different reasons for being in prison than men, different histories of abuse and addiction, different family roles and relationships, different health concerns and different motivations to change.
A vast majority of women in prison (68 percent) are incarcerated for property or drug crimes rather than crimes against persons. When women are prosecuted, they have less to bargain with because they are often less engaged and on the periphery of the criminal activity. But they have much to lose physically, mentally and financially.
Incarcerated women are poor, disproportionately African American and Latina and mothers of children under the age of 18. And women prisoners are more likely than men to have had the responsibility of caring for their children prior to their arrest. As a result, their greatest loss may be the loss of their children.
Most women in prison have histories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Their patterns of drug use often stem from trauma and untreated mental health issues. They tend to be unskilled and have sporadic work histories in low-wage jobs.
Women’s health issues call for different treatment in prison. Women’s relationships, especially with their children, are often key to their desire to improve their lives. But a mother’s imprisonment can have a long lasting and negative affect on her children.
As described in a 2004 Little Hoover Commission report, a significant number of women prisoners do not represent a serious threat to public safety. The commission recommended a greater reliance on community corrections for women rather than remote prisons.
Housing women in community settings that are rich in services and nearer their families is considered key to reducing their recycling in and out of prison. This approach can also keep families together.
Helping women maintain links to their families and communities is simply smarter and more efficient than keeping them locked in costly high-security institutions.
Of course, there are other options, including sending fewer women to prison in the first place. If we expanded drug courts, we could reduce the women’s prison population by a third over time.
For women who are in prison, we could make meaningful strides toward breaking the cycle of neglect and abuse by addressing the significant circumstances faced by those we incarcerate. Services in prison should include medical and mental health care, counseling, education and job training, drug treatment and parenting on a scale that can make a true difference.
None of this is possible without acknowledging that the women we lock up are human beings. They are our mothers, daughters, sisters, relatives, and friends, and if they are hidden and not addressed in prison reform efforts, we risk the perpetuation of women’s imprisonment for generations to come.
Barbara Bloom, a Petaluma resident, is a professor or criminology and criminal justice at Sonoma State University and has served on the Governor’s Rehabilitation Strike Team. She organized a program called “Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States,” which includes an exhibit that runs through April 28 at the university library art gallery.
Woman will have to register as sex offender
by Kurt Hildebrand
A California woman will have to register as a sex offender after she admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old boy.
Heather Ann Grizoffi, 19, received 10 days in jail and a $1,000 fine after she pleaded guilty on Monday to one count of statutory sexual seduction, a gross misdemeanor. She was given credit for 10 days she served when she was arrested on a Douglas County warrant and was awaiting extradition to Nevada. She was also ordered to complete 100 hours of community service in the next six months.
Her attorney, Richard Molezzo, said his client was pleading guilty against his advice.
Under Nevada law, Grizoffi could have her record sealed after seven years.
A psychologist found that Grizoffi was not likely to repeat her behavior and was not a threat to the community.
Because California won’t supervise a misdemeanor case, Dougals County District Judge Michael Gibbons ruled out probation.
“The punishment in this case comes down to jail time, a fine or community service,” he said before sentencing her to all three.
Molezzo argued that the real punishment for her behavior will be the requirement she register as a sex offender.
Grizoffi was required to provide a DNA sample to the state and will have to pay $196 to reimburse the county for extraditing her here.
Gibbons asked Grizoffi to seek counseling and to write an apology to the victim’s family.
A warrant was issued for her arrest in September 2008 after the boy’s family reported the relationship to authorities.
According to Prosecutor Erik Levin, the parents told Grizoffi to stop
seeing their son before bringing charges.
Revelations and regrets behind bars
Cornerstone Theater Company production moves female inmates at correctional
facility in Corona.
For 23 years, Cornerstone Theater Company has aimed for dramatic immediacy by enlisting communities caught up in contemporary issues and making plays out of the stories they tell. It has performed in an Oregon cattle barn, on the roof of the deconsecrated St. Vibiana's cathedral in downtown L.A. and on the National Mall in Washington. But until Saturday morning, Cornerstone never had done a play behind bars.
The result, during two-plus hours at the California Institution for Women, a state prison in Corona, said something about just how immediate theater can be.
"For All Time," which explores the place of forgiveness in our justice system, had its run last fall in downtown Los Angeles. On Saturday, director Laurie Woolery and her cast of 20 rose at dawn so they could bring the show to an audience of inmates -- several of whom would be seeing their own stories unfold.
The play is populated by perpetrators and victims, by a support group for ex-cons and by one for mothers of murdered children. Playwright KJ Sanchez shaped their words into rapidly shifting scenes and episodic, jump-cut stories, all aimed at getting a handle on some of the hardest questions haunting the dispensation of justice. When is a murderer's debt paid? When, and for whose sake, should those who've been wronged embrace mercy and forgiveness?
As in L.A., the playing space was a long, narrow strip, flanked on either side by the audience. About 120 inmates, a racially mixed group, sat in metal folding chairs, wearing sweats, jeans or loose-fitting dark blue prison slacks and smocks.
The show wasn't all heavy-going. Wry humor looped through it, and the women nodded, murmured agreement or laughed and clapped at ironies that rang true. What, one of the ex-cons asks, is the difference between a public defender and a lawyer? "A public defender is going to get you the best deal. A lawyer is going to get you off."
Applause also greeted parts that lampooned the system for its race and class disparities. "Lady Liberty is blind when it comes to my kind," actor Ramona Gonzales intoned in a poem that had been woven into the script. Its author, April Adkins, watched from a few feet away.
More often, the room seemed to hold its breath.
At intermission, Ann Hull, a large woman with a thick, electric shock of hair beneath a woolen ski cap, said she'd been pierced by the words and the anguished tone of one of the actors. D'Lo was his name, and his roles included delivering the choruses from the text of Aeschylus' ancient Greek tragedy "The Oresteia," which moved the 28-year-old inmate.
"So much desolation. So much despair," Hull said. Whether other prisoners would admit it or not, she said, they all wrestled privately with those feelings. She didn't know "The Oresteia," which tells of horrible crimes followed by bloody retribution and of a struggle to temper justice with mercy and end the cycle of vengeance.
By intermission, Andrea Cutchon had decided to skip another obligation -- a rehearsal of the prison's Polynesian dance group -- to catch the second act. "It makes you think about the things you've done in your life, the effect you have on people," she said. Asked about the classic masks of comedy and tragedy tattooed on her arm, the ponytailed young woman said that, no, they didn't mean she was a theater buff. She'd gotten them when she was dealing drugs, and with the accompanying script, "play at your own risk," the masks were a warning to the world: no tricks, no games, keep me smiling -- or else the tragedy will be yours.
While others milled about during the break, inmate Romarilyn Baker sat quietly alone. Then Kyri Owens, the assistant public information officer who was part of the prison team that embraced Cornerstone's project, came over and asked what she thought of the play. Baker had led the eight-woman inmates' group that shared personal stories with the dramatists.
"It's uh, it's heavy," said the tall, slender woman, who is serving a life sentence for murder.
In an interview Friday, Warden Dawn Davison said she had felt strongly that the project, capped by the free performance, would serve the process of rehabilitation. "Hopefully, it'll touch some place within."
Catharsis -- that inner touching that the ancient Greeks considered the payoff of effective drama -- took hold during the second act. It brought a hush to the hall, where a sign posted by the door read, "Thinking about suicide? With help comes hope! Honor your life. Talk to any staff member now."
In a monologue delivered through tears, actor Marcenus "M.C." Earl, himself an ex-convict who served time for a 1995 bank robbery, told of two long-separated brothers who were able to meet and embrace in a prison cell, thanks to a guard's act of mercy. Sarah Gonzales, a graying inmate with a long, Native American-style braid down her back, rose from her front-row seat and handed Earl some tissues. He grasped them and went on without interruption. When Earl and Joshua Lamont performed the embrace, the audience broke into sustained applause. In L.A. the scene always elicited quiet sniffles, Earl said.
"Our job with downtown audiences was for them to realize these are people," actor Lamont said after the show. "Here, it was to let them know there is life, and there is hope for you, no matter what. [Prison] doesn't define who you are, it's just a circumstance. Keep your head up and keep hoping."
The play, Baker affirmed, "outdid any of our expectations." She had seen herself played by Bahni Turpin as a wise "lifer" who helps a newly arrived inmate, then is left reeling by a denial of parole. What had hit home the most, Baker said, was watching the bereaved mothers trying to sort through the grief, pain and rage of a child's murder, clinging to each other because even their own families were telling them, "You need to move on."
"Those words have crossed my mind so many times, but they never will again," Baker said softly. "People have to take all the time they need to heal."
Female inmates doing time on Calif. fire lines
GOLETA, Calif. (AP) — Tracey Johnson wields a chain saw, tosses branches and rakes brush under the punishing sun and a heavy pack as smoke from a raging wildfire looms over the mountains nearby.
It's grueling work, but it beats staring at the four walls of a prison cell.
"You have a taste of freedom," declared Johnson, who said she's serving five years for possessing, selling and transporting cocaine. "And you get respect."
Johnson is one of 28 female convicts working the front lines of the nine-day-old wildfire roaring through Los Padres National Forest in Southern California's Santa Barbara County.
They're part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's conservation camp program in which 4,500 nonviolent inmates are trained to fight wildfires and do forestry work on public lands. About 350 are women.
Wildfire-plagued states such as California and Arizona have long tapped minimum-security prisoners as firefighting labor during the intense summer fire season. Arizona also has a female inmate crew.
It's work that more than a few men would shy from.
The so-called hand crews trek into chaparral and backwoods, sometimes hiking miles in mountainous terrain, to clear containment lines so flames have no fuel to feed on. They use axes, chain saws, picks and rakes to fell trees, chop limbs and remove weeds, often toiling in smoke-laden air and intense heat.
The only difference between regular crews and inmates is that the prisoners cannot handle the torches used for setting backfires.
"They work exceptionally hard," said Capt. Mark Seim of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "The benefit to the state is just huge in terms of the man hours provided."
The state has even hired some former inmates, both male and female, he said.
The women do the same work as their male counterparts, and while they're not as strong or fast, they're more precise, said Lt. Angela R. Alexander, supervisor of the Goleta fire crew.
"We have cleaner lines — that's what they tell us," said Kristi Smith of Chico, inmate boss of the crew that fanned out Tuesday along a ridge in Venadito Canyon to widen a fire line on the blaze's western flank. "We are going to be perfect."
Dressed in orange jumpsuits, helmets and thick boots, the women acknowledged the job is hard but said they're grateful for it. They earn $1 an hour and two days off their sentence for every day worked, double the time off that a regular prison job would get them.
Many also feel they're atoning for their crimes.
"I made some bad choices, so I like being part of something positive. I'm productive," said Tracy Violet of San Francisco, who said she's 16 months into a nine-year sentence for forgery. She hopes to reduce that to three years with credit from fighting fires.
Inmates have to request fire duty. The conservation camps do not take violent criminals, sex offenders or arsonists. Misbehavior means being sent back to an institutional prison.
The women are mostly slender with slight builds, but they tone up quickly with training and the work.
"I've never been in better shape in my life," said Smith, who said she's done seven years of a 10-year sentence for check-bouncing fraud.
Supervisors said the female crews are generally easier to handle than the men and have fewer discipline problems. Escapees of both sexes are rare and are usually caught.
"Women are more supportive of each other, sort of a buddy system," Alexander said.
"They're more appreciative of small things. They like shampoo, lotion, soap. They were ecstatic the other day because their clothes came back from the laundry with the smell of Downy. Do you think men would notice that?"
Prisons halt policy on dental extractions
SACRAMENTO - The state prison system is scrapping a controversial policy that forced some female inmates to have their damaged teeth extracted in order to be housed with their young children.
The Friday announcement came two days after a state Senate committee delayed confirmation of Jeffrey D. Thompson as director of correctional health-care operations because of concern over the policy. Senators called the situation - revealed in an April article in the Mercury News - "outrageous," "terrible" and "unconscionable" at the Rules Committee hearing Wednesday.
Thompson revealed in an interview Friday he is halting the policy, which applied to special training programs open to non-violent offenders: "I want to make it absolutely clear that our objective here is to ensure that dental is not a barrier to accessing these programs.
"It's just the right thing to do."
Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, an inmate-rights advocate, called Thompson's announcement "amazing news" for the women who resorted to tooth extractions.
"It's brought tears to my eyes," Lieber said, "to hear that they won't have to go through that anymore."
The policy in question, known as dental clearance, has been in place for years. It applies to vocational, rehabilitative and housing programs offered to women in smaller prison and community-based settings.
To gain access to these off-site programs, inmates must be cleared of
any pre-existing health problems, including severely damaged teeth. Many
women are eager to enroll because they can be housed with their children,
but in the crowded California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,
it can take many months to be treated by dentists and doctors.
The April 18 Mercury News article highlighted the stories of women who chose not to wait to have their teeth repaired, and instead asked dentists for extractions.
"I'd rather lose a tooth than not have my baby, so to me it was worth it," said 31-year-old Michelle Filby, one of the inmates interviewed in a community correctional center in Oakland where she lives with her baby boy.
The prison system doesn't track how many women request extractions to get into the programs. Nor does it know the specific reasons for their severely damaged teeth, though methamphetamine use is a "significant" factor, said Dr. Changsu Park, a dental program administrator.
Prison officials had earlier defended the policy, saying dental clearance was necessary because the specialized programs are housed in locations that don't have dentists on site.
But Thompson, Schwarzenegger's appointee as the prison system's assistant secretary for health-care policy, said his department is making plans to contract with dentists in locations near the programs that house the 71 women of the mother-infant program. Another program, which serves 105 women, also will eliminate dental screening.
"If we're really going to be committed to rehabilitation, we need to
do everything we can to provide opportunities to our inmates to access
rehabilitation programs," Thompson said. "That's my belief."
Contact Edwin Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org or (916) 441-4651.
A painful choice for moms in prison
SACRAMENTO - Sarina Borg had a tough choice to make.
She could wait for months, maybe more than a year, to have her rotting teeth repaired by a dentist. Or she could get them pulled to be reunited with her baby daughter.
In California women's prisons, dozens if not hundreds of inmates like Borg are faced with the same wrenching decision: To gain access to a host of vocational-training and drug-rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenders - including a course that teaches them parenting skills while living with their children in special housing - they must be cleared of any pre-existing health problems.
Just one badly damaged tooth will block them from entering a program.
"It's unconscionable," said Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, who has proposed legislation to shorten the waiting list for women wanting to get their teeth fixed by a prison dentist, a measure that passed its first committee hearing last week.
"We have women who are getting 16 and 18 out of 34 teeth pulled, and that really destroys their future job prospects," Lieber said. "We have to change the situation."
She introduced AB 2877 after learning that a court settlement agreement, which calls for vastly improved dental care in all state prisons over the next three years, had left the three women's institutions near the bottom of the implementation schedule.
Relatively few inmates qualify for the program that allows mothers to serve their sentences with their infants because of the strict dental-clearance and other reasons, such as a requirement that the prisoners retain legal custody of their children.
So when the opportunity to enroll was presented to Borg, 31, who is from Daly City, it didn't take long to make her decision: "I said hurry up and pull it," Borg recalled of her meeting with a prison dentist, "I want to be with my baby."
She ended up having four teeth removed to earn her the coveted transfer to a minimum-security, dormitory-like prison in Oakland, the East Bay Community Recovery Project. There, she could bond with her 3-month-old daughter, Kamaleia, and learn how to become a better mother, in a setting that costs less to taxpayers than a traditional prison. Borg is expected to serve the remainder of her two-year, eight-month sentence for robbery at the program.
Officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation say the dental and health clearances are necessary because the specialized programs are based at smaller community prisons and don't have dentists or doctors on site. Thousands of men also must pass the same screening to get into specialized programs scattered across California.
"We don't want to send offenders out to these facilities and have major dental issues or medical conditions that would put them at risk," said Wendy Still, who oversees the state's three mother-infant community prisons, which house 71 women.
About 900 women are enrolled in all of the specialized programs, which cost the state as little as $90 a day per inmate, Still said, a taxpayer bargain compared with the $121 daily tab of a traditional prison bed.
But as helpful as the programs may be in preparing women for life after prison - and as useful as they are at reducing California's notoriously high recidivism rate - they also have a major downside on the personal lives of the inmates.
Mothers who undergo extractions to live with their children in the community prisons, and who learn job skills there, have difficulty finding work upon their release because employers would rather not hire someone whose mouth has more gaps than teeth.
"It's probably almost as big a deal as having a criminal record," said Allyson West, director of the California Reentry Program, which prepares inmates for their release from San Quentin. "They're going to be pigeonholed because of their appearance."
Inmates with missing teeth also suffer from low self-esteem.
"I'm still young and now I have no teeth down there, you know what I mean?" said Borg, who doesn't smile as often as she used to; she's missing three bottom teeth on the right side of her mouth. She also finds it hard to chew. "Being a woman, I just feel degraded, really bad."
Prison dental clinics don't typically offer dentures, implants or other cosmetic work.
Another inmate in the Oakland program, 31-year-old Michelle Filby, is self-conscious about a gap on the top row of her mouth, and other missing teeth, which she hopes to fix after her release, assuming she lands a good job.
Still, she has no regrets. "I'd rather lose a tooth than not have my baby, so to me it was worth it," Filby said. "But it would have been nice to maybe get a root canal or fillings."
Rachel Roth, an independent scholar and national expert on the health issues of women in prison, said the dental-clearance policy "just shows how desperate women are to get out of the big prisons and be with their children that they would allow themselves to be treated in such an inhumane way."
Prison statistics don't track how many women with severely damaged teeth, often caused by methamphetamine use and poor hygiene, have requested extractions to get into the programs.
About 9,000 teeth are pulled each year in California's three female institutions, according to prison system records. More than 12,000 women are housed in those prisons.
It's also difficult to determine how California's dental-clearance policy compares with the rest of the country, because not all states have similar women's housing programs; some institutions run nurseries within large prisons where health services are readily available.
Advocates for female inmates who are familiar with prison policies nationwide say California's dental-clearance requirement seems rare.
"That's extraordinary," said Tamar Kraft-Stolar, a director with the Correctional Association of New York, a non-profit agency with authority to inspect that state's prisons. "I've not heard of anything like that."
Contact Edwin Garcia at email@example.com or (916) 441-4651.
For Women Behind Bars, "Health Care" Can Be Deadly
By Silja J.A. Talvi, Seal Press. Posted November 1, 2007.
Women in jail can suffer slow and painful deaths for treatable and simple illnesses simply as a result of the horrific state of prison health care.
Women Behind Bars by Silja Talvi (Seal Press, 2007)
Readers of Women Behind Bars might ask the logical question of why an entire book should be focused on female incarceration while men are still, by far, the majority of people getting arrested and locked up. To many criminologists and writers who cover prison issues, the percentage of women in prison is so small as to warrant little, if any, attention or analysis. (Indeed, at many of the prison-related conferences that I have attended over the years, prisoners are referred to by the male pronoun almost exclusively.)
This question is entirely valid, and deserves a response. Men do face unique issues and hardships in prison, and the overrepresentation of men of color (especially African Americans), the mentally ill, and poor people in general has been more of an overall focus in my work than women's issues in prison until this point.
The deeper I began to delve into the underlying reasons for the rapid growth of girls and women in lock-up, the more insight I gained into a world that few outsiders see, much less understand. Once I began to pay particularly close attention to the ways in which females in the criminal justice system were portrayed in the media, it became clear to me that stereotypes and judgments about "fallen women" from centuries ago were still holding fast.
There's much more to all of this, of course, from the overt medical neglect of women's chronic health needs; to the prevalence of sexual coercion and abuse in women's detention facilities (primarily at the hands of correctional officers, as opposed to other inmates); to the fact that girls and women enter the criminal justice system with far higher rates of drug abuse, sexual violence, childhood abuse, mental illness, and experiences with homelessness. Women are also being punished heavily with undeserved federal "conspiracy charges" for their general unwillingness (or inability) to "snitch" on their loved ones or friends in drug cases -- to the point that this has began to be known as the "girlfriend problem" in the criminal justice system.
Today, the number of girls and women doing time is utterly unprecedented in U.S. history. In 1977, there were just slightly more than 11,000 women in state or federal prison. By 2004, the number of women in prisons had increased by a breathtaking 757 percent. At the end of 2006, there were 203,100 women in jails, state and federal prisons, plus another 1,094,000 women on probation or parole, for a total of 1.3 million females under some form of correctional supervision. (Another 15,000-20,000 girls are being held in juvenile detention.) While Euro-American women still outnumber any other demographic group in jails and prisons, African American women are four times more likely to be locked up than their Euro-American counterparts. (Collectively, African American women and Latinas represent more than 60 percent of women doing time.)
The following excerpt provides just one woman's story from Women Behind Bars. She did not live to tell it, but I am able to share it with you here.
I was already several months into the process of writing Women Behind Bars when I received an e-mail from a woman by the name of Grace Ortega. Grace had heard about the book project, and wanted to know if she could tell me what happened to her daughter, Gina Muniz, after she was incarcerated for the first (and last) time in her life. In truth, I already had enough women's stories to fill the pages of a few books -- if anything, I was overwhelmed trying to figure out which stories not to include -- but there was something about Grace's letter, the sheer urgency of it, that made me want to talk to her.
In our first conversation, Grace and I talked for two hours -- or, to be more precise, I listened for those two hours. It actually didn't click until a few days after that conversation that something sounded very familiar about what Grace had been telling me in great detail. Sure enough, I had once actually written about Gina, albeit briefly, in an article about the allegations and emerging evidence surrounding shoddy, abusive, and sometimes life-threatening medical "care" in two adjacent women's prisons: Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) and the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla.
Grace and I stayed in touch, and I made it known that I would be interested in researching the details of her case for Women Behind Bars. I asked her to send me court documents, medical records, prison memos, grievances, or anything else she might have that would enable me to grasp the chronology of events in Gina's life, and to look more deeply into her situation. A few weeks later, a cardboard box the size of an orange crate arrived at my home. Grace had taken my request seriously and literally; from what I could tell, she had sent me absolutely everything she possessed pertaining to her daughter's case.
I didn't actually examine the contents of the box closely until I was already well into a few chapters of this book. When I did finally start to sort through the material, I saw that Grace had included four 8" x 11" color photos of her daughter. I set them down on my kitchen table and just stood there, staring at them. I don't know how much time passed, but I know it was long enough that the images were actually seared into my mind.
When I mentioned earlier that I was haunted by Gina's story, I meant that I have also been haunted by these images. For a time, I actually buried the photos under piles of paper in a strange attempt to block out my emotional reaction to them. It didn't matter; my mind couldn't erase any of it.
As I write this, these pictures are out of hiding, because I can finally give Gina's story a voice. The photograph that I have placed next to me is of her emaciated body, shackled to a bed in a community hospital near CCWF. Another of Gina's photos, which was taken just two months before her arrest on August 8, 1998, is on top of my desk. This is a snapshot of a naturally, strikingly beautiful woman with thick, dark curls framing her wide smile. Gina's warmth and kindness radiate from that picture, just as the one taken just a few weeks before her death conveys the agony of living in a body taken over by cervical cancer, which had started out as an entirely treatable, early-stage illness.
Gina's face in the hospital picture is that of a much, much older woman. The only parts of her that still look young are her hands and long fingers, which resemble a pianist's. Her left arm is shackled to the bed, per the requirement of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that even terminally ill prisoners be shackled to their beds and guarded twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Her right arm tenderly cups the head of her then-eight-year-old daughter, Amanda.
Her eyes give away the intensity of her suffering, which started out as horribly as it ended. When she was first taken to the LA County Jail, Gina began to bleed so profusely that she would go through many sanitary pads in the space of a few minutes; most of the time, she was just left to bleed all over herself and her cell. When her cries got loud enough, jail guards would typically come over and look at her with disgust, and then throw toilet paper rolls into her cell.
All of this went on until Gina passed out while talking to her mother on the phone after nearly eight months of nonstop bleeding in jail. Gina's collapse was apparently what it took for her pleas for medical assistance to be heard. Even then, it would be months before she was examined properly and diagnosed with Stage IIB cervical cancer, which has a high success rate of being treated and stopped in its tracks if it is treated aggressively and consistently.
Gina's pleas for justice, however, were not heeded. She received a life sentence in state prison, with an additional seven years tacked on. A life sentence would seem to indicate that she had committed a heinous crime, and most certainly a crime of violence. But Gina had actually committed a nonviolent act, although even she thought she should be punished for stealing $200 from a fifty-one-year- old Vietnamese American woman. Gina did not have a gun, knife, or any other weapon with her, but she admitted that she "strong-armed" the woman into going to a nearby ATM and giving her the money. Even the victim herself, when the police arrived on the scene, stated that Gina had not hurt her in any manner. Gina hadn't been a career criminal by any stretch of the imagination.
Her only violations were for car-related misdemeanors, including a June 30, 1998 charge for driving without a permit. (Gina did not do jail time, although the incident did go on her record.) What happened that pushed this twenty-seven-year-old, with no history of criminal behavior, to the point of rob- bing someone?
Grace explained to me that Gina's father's death on April 22, 1998, triggered a serious, debilitating spiral of depression in her daughter's life. Although Gina's father had periodically been a heavy cocaine and heroin user, and Grace had left him when Gina was just a child, Gina still adored him and tried to see him as much as possible.
By all accounts, cocaine hadn't even been a part of Gina's life until after her father died. Although she had gotten involved with men who hadn't exactly done right by her, Gina had set her sights on becoming a nurse and paving the way for a good life for Amanda.
Seeing her grief, a much older, married male family member offered his "support" to Gina, and then gave her a taste of a drug that he promised would help her get through the pain. His encouragement of her cocaine use was obviously far from being in Gina's best interest. When her use turned into dependency, he started demanding sexual favors, which she provided to him for a time in exchange for money to buy more drugs.
The "exchange" went on for a few months, until a day when she asked for $200 and this relative demanded another sexual favor. As Gina later admitted to her mother, she was suddenly consumed by hatred and disgust -- toward him and toward herself. She refused his advances, and he in turn refused the money. But Gina's desire for more cocaine overtook her ability to think clearly. As her mom put it, "Gina did something that she would have considered unthinkable" in the not-so-distant past.
A mere surface examination reveals that Gina's poor attempt at a crime was obviously a fumbling act of desperation by a woman addicted to drugs. But that's not how the court saw it. Gina's own defense attorney took Grace's hard-earned money (which he was eventually forced to return when Grace filed a complaint with the California Bar Association), did nothing to argue her case, and then urged Gina to plead guilty in exchange for a short sentence. While the judge was announcing the terms of her sentence, Gina heard the words "life" and "seven years," and anxiously asked her lawyer what was happening.
As a bailiff would later testify, Gina's lawyer had lied to her, telling her that entering a guilty plea would get her only a seven-year sentence, not life in prison. Gina did not find out until she was sent to CCWF that she was going to spend the rest of her life in prison. Medical "decisions" made at some level in the process ensured that she was denied the necessary hysterectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy that would have saved her life. In essence, her already cruel and unwarranted life sentence was hastened into a death sentence over just a few horrible months of pain and suffering, during which she and her mother pleaded constantly for medical intervention and urgent treatment.
It took many months of letter writing, and the volunteer assistance of the San Francisco-based advocacy group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, for Grace to get her daughter out of a depressing community hospital room under the constant watch of prison guards. Gina wanted to die at home, and so she did. On September 29, 2000, Gina Muniz slipped away in silence, surrounded by her immediate family, just two days after her mother took her home.
Where is the healing or hope in a story like this? Gina was certainly not given the chance to experience either.
Instead, they have manifested themselves in Grace's ability to turn her own grief into advocacy on the part of other women in prison. Grace has traveled across California, testifying before legislators and advocating for compassionate release for terminally ill women in prison so that they do not have to endure anything akin to the needless and slow death that Gina suffered.
Grace still looks at the pictures of her daughter every day, and she worries that her daughter's life will be forgotten entirely or, worse yet, dismissed as the plight of a criminal whose life and death were of no particular significance. "Please," she asked me again at the end of our last conversation, "Please make sure that Gina isn't forgotten."
See more stories tagged with: u.s. prison system, seal press, silja talvi, women behind bars
Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times. Her work appears
in the anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).
No More RoomMedical care close to a crisis in the state's crowded
SACRAMENTO -- State corrections officials have crammed hundreds of inmates into two already overstuffed women's prisons in Chowchilla -- an influx that the state's prison medical czar says could cause health-care services to "collapse entirely" in one of the prisons.
By moving about 600 inmates from Southern California, prison officials have worsened crowding in the state's three women's prisons.
And with most of the attention on the state's jampacked men's prisons, not much relief is in sight.
"Because of the sheer numbers of men, women have just become what we call 'correctional afterthoughts,' " said Barbara Owen, a criminology professor at California State University, Fresno, and a national expert on women's prisons.
Populations at the Valley State Prison for Women and the Central California Women's Facility have swelled by 8%, leaving both prisons housing more than twice as many inmates as they were designed for.
About 400 women are sleeping in prison gymnasiums, squeezed side by side in bunk beds.
At Valley State, the increasing demand for medical care forced officials to shut down a preventive care clinic to focus on urgent aid.
The prison is providing the care required under legal guidelines, but only because medical staff are working overtime, said Dr. Daun Martin, Valley State's acting health-care manager.
"We are struggling every day," she said.
"We're constantly under the gun to make sure that our patients get good care."
The transfers started in April when the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shut down the women's wing of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.
The aging center did not have the space needed to properly care for female inmates, officials say.
The transfers, completed in late June, had been planned for a long time.
But Robert Sillen, the court-appointed overseer of prison medical care, said he wasn't consulted enough on the decision, and that the transfers would have a "severe" impact on medical care.
Medical care at Valley State is "already at a crisis stage" and the influx of new prisoners "may well cause the medical delivery system at [the prison] to collapse entirely," Sillen said in a recent update to a federal judge.
Wendy Still, associate director for female offender programs, said the Corrections Department has responded to Sillen's concerns. A representative from his office now sits in on weekly population meetings, she said.
"I think it's important that we work very closely together," she said.
Martin said Valley State needs more medical staff and more vehicles to take inmates to off-site hospitals and clinics.
Sillen -- who has complete control of the prison medical system -- has ordered more than 100 vans for all of the state's prisons, and Valley State should get new vehicles later this summer, said Rachael Kagan, the medical overseer's spokeswoman.
Also, Sillen is reviewing Valley State's request for 17 more nurses and one doctor at the prison, which now has five full-time doctors, six nurse practitioners and more than 30 nurses.
"We have massive, massive health-care needs," Martin said. Many inmates "haven't taken care of themselves. They haven't eaten right. They've been prostituting, living on the streets."
Long-range plans call for moving thousands of inmates from the state's three women's prisons to several community-based facilities, where women would get better access to rehabilitation services, corrections officials say.
But the Legislature has failed to pass the proposal, which is opposed by unions.
This year's version -- contained in Assembly Bill 76 by Assembly Member Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View -- would have added 2,900 beds at community-based centers, with no more than 200 beds in each site. But Lieber had to take the proposal out of the bill in the face of opposition from Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which feared the bill would result in "privately operated facilities that lack proper oversight."
Lieber and other supporters -- including the Corrections Department -- still hope a deal can be cut later this year.
The recently approved $7.9 billion prison construction plan mostly ignores women. Some 16,000 beds will be added at men's prisons, but none at women's prisons.
Owen blames the inattention on "the tyranny of the numbers."
Of the state's 166,171 prisoners, just 11,136 are women.
Yet women's prisons are just as crowded as men's prisons -- and getting worse.
About 4,600 more women are now imprisoned than in 1990, leaving women's prisons stuffed to nearly double their capacity.
Owen and other experts say the spike is due to stiffer penalties for drug crimes.
Nearly 65% of female inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent drug or property crimes, compared with about 40% of male inmates, according to a 2004 study by the Little Hoover Commission, a government watchdog group.
Historically, female prisoners have been treated like male prisoners. But research suggests women have different needs.
A majority of female inmates have mental-health problems, and four in 10 were physically or sexually abused before age 18, according to the Little Hoover report.
Many are the primary caretaker of a child, yet the state isolates the women in "large, remotely located prisons" with limited access to counseling, the report found.
The result: Half of those released from prison violate parole and end up back in prison.
Owen, who consults with the state on prison issues, said the Corrections Department has a good plan in place. But the "processes to implement the plan are very slow-moving."
The community-based centers are a key part of the strategy to free up more space for counseling and drug treatment. But without significant new money for the centers, the department has had to take a piecemeal approach.
Today, about 10% of female inmates are housed in community-based centers, Still said. The goal is to move nearly 50% of inmates into the centers.
Meanwhile, prisons like Valley State struggle to keep up with the growing population. Martin, the health manager, said she's been lobbying for modular buildings to provide more clinic space.
"We have to have more space," she said. "We cannot continue doing what
we're doing and do it well ... without more space."
12:57 AM PDT on Sunday, May 13, 2007
By PAIGE AUSTIN
Slideshow: Get On The Bus Mother's Day event
Jada Pointer's tummy ache was cured with a smile.
It was the perfect smile: her mom's. The 9-year-old from Perris hadn't seen that comforting smile in more than a year.
Jada was one of hundreds of children who took the healing journey Friday to visit their mothers in prisons around California. For Jada and five busloads of children from San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the trip meant a 51/2-hour bus ride to Valley State Prison and the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.
The trip was part of the annual Get On The Bus Mother's Day event sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph Ministerial Services. It's a day when volunteers work to spoil and entertain children who often have learned to do without. They get special blankets, teddy bears and letters from their mothers.
In California, about 200,000 children have parents in prisons. Almost 12,000 women are in the state prisons, and most are young mothers, according to a state audit, who don't receive visits from their children because the prisons are remote and because the cost of the journey can be too much.
The broken bonds help fuel the intergenerational cycle of crime and victimization, said Margot Bach, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Sonya Bullette embraces her daughter Jada Pointer, 9, as Sonya's older daughter Marquisha Scout laughs with joy after seeing their mother during an early Mother's Day visit Friday at the Valley State Prison For Women in Chowchilla.
Without that connection to family, mothers can develop a sense of hopelessness and their children can develop abandonment or anger issues, said Sister Sarah Shrewsbury, who organized the Perris bus trip.
For many, Friday's trip would be the only time they see their mothers this year. Some hadn't seen their mothers since birth.
Jada, a fourth-grader who is sensitive and eager to please, was not the only child whose stomach was tied up in knots.
Many skipped sleep the night before or awoke at 2 a.m. to be on the bus from Perris by 5 a.m. Of the 18 children on Jada's bus, one came alone, one came with his aunt and the rest were accompanied by the grandmothers who raise them. The youngest were the most carefree and eager to join games organized by volunteers on the bus. Some of the older children and first-time visitors were more pensive, quietly looking out their windows at the mountains and the Mojave dessert.
For their 17-hour trip, they got to spend roughly three hours visiting with their mothers in the prison visiting rooms and yards.
'I'm Your Mom'
LaTonya Hamilton has reason to be a proud mother. Her son, Darryl Taylor, said his first word at seven months and was walking at eight months. Almost 2 now, he dances and sings and shows promise as a future basketball star, said his doting relatives.
He came home from the hospital more alert than most babies, said his aunt, Tammy Allison. His eyes are large and round, and they seem to take in much. On Friday, they spilled over with tears.
His mother was a stranger to him. She was already in prison when he was born, and she had to give him up within a few days of his birth.
For the first time since then, Hamilton reached for her baby.
"I'm your mom," she told him.
Darryl cried and nestled into his aunt's familiar arms. His cries sounded like any toddler's, but to Hamilton, they were gut wrenching.
"I'm so happy to see him, but he doesn't know who I am," she said. "He's just looking at me like, 'Who is she?' "
Her eyes, a perfect match for Darryl's, also filled with tears.
When Darryl was born, he faced the prospect of entering foster care. It wasn't an easy decision for Allison, of Lake Elsinore, to take him in. She already had raised her own son. She was in her 40s. But she ended up taking not only Darryl, but another sister's baby born in the same prison in the same week. It was like having twin newborns.
Now one sister is back with her toddler, and Darryl calls Allison "Mom." She tries to teach him that he has two mommies. But visiting Hamilton is tough -- a 675-mile round trip, time off from work at a Chevron station, and the cost of gas and a hotel room.
Hamilton will come home in 2010. Allison she hoped Friday's meeting of mother and son would be the first of several to help them establish a bond.
It took most of the three-hour visit Friday, but Hamilton got through to her son. She won him over with a potato chip, and he rewarded her with giggles.
With her son playing at her feet for the first time ever, Hamilton looked at her sister.
"I've got to get out and get my life together for my son," she told Allison. "I've got to do right by Darryl."
'I Am Not Alone'
Nine-year-old Albert Gonzalez held onto his mother's long hair like it was his lifeline. The boy from San Bernardino twisted it, tasted it, tangled it through his fingers and plucked a strand or two to save for later.
"I need it, Mommy," he said, gripping a strand in his hand. "I need it to take home."
While Albert attempted to drink in a year's worth of his mother, his brothers and sister climbed over her and vied for her praise.
Their father brought them, and he was one of few fathers of the 140 families to visit the prison Friday.
The Gonzalez family relished every second of their visit. The children took running leaps into their mother's arms again and again and talked over one another with their questions and stories. Exhausted at the end of the visit, they rested their heads in her lap.
Tania Borje beamed at her oldest, 12-year-old Jose, who excels in school and plans to become a wildlife biologist.
She held his cheeks, looked into his eyes and told him it wouldn't matter what others said about her being in prison.
"Life is not always perfect, but we love each other and we are family," she told him. She reminded him to have the courage to do what is right and help other people when he can.
He hung on her every word.
"I used to take family for granted, but family is the most important thing," Borje said. "The bus program is such a blessing. It just makes me feel that I am not alone. It makes you go on when you just want to give up. Instead, you want to better yourself."
'She Didn't Recognize Me'
He calls himself a mama's boy, but 17-year-old Joshua Temple, of Hemet, has only seen his mother three times in the past six years.
He was with his mom when the police came to take her away. He was in the kitchen baking cookies with her when he heard the pounding on the door. He was only 11, but he knew that pounding meant the police were coming.
He and his brother lived in a group home for almost a year before his grandmother, now 70, could take him in with his little sister and brother.
The group home was unpleasant and violent, Joshua said.
Joshua said he wants to avoid the mistakes of his parents and plans to join the Army Reserves in July when he will be old enough. Busted for driving before he got his license, he said he misses being able to talk to his mom at the end of a bad day.
Over time, he has begun to suspect that his family is hiding something from him about his mom. The courts would never sentence the mother of three young children to prison for 17 years for burglary, he said. "It must be something worse, but no one will tell me. As soon as I turn 18, I am going down to the court and demand that they tell me the truth. That's all I want."
His mother was given 12 years for burglary and another five years because of two prior burglary strikes.
Joshua never saw his mother for four years until the first Riverside County Get On The Bus program two years ago. Joshua and his younger brother and sister have visited their mom three times with the help of Get On The Bus.
"She took a step right past me in the waiting room," said Joshua after his visit Friday. "She didn't recognize me at first, but then she started crying and hugging us."
'I Felt Abandoned'
In prison there is a saying: "Inmates aren't the only ones serving time."
Family members do time in their own ways.
Her mother is serving life without parole for murder. Deja Cox, 15, of Moreno Valley, and her younger sister and brother live with their grandmother, who dotes on them but worries that she could never take the place of their mother.
Deja is good in school, driven to succeed -- and keeps the world at bay.
"People always leave or do something to hurt you if you let them get too close," she said. "At first, after she left, I felt abandoned. But then I kind of built up a protective vault for myself. You can't depend on other people. You have to live your own life."
She was 6 when her mother was charged with murder.
Deja is on the honor role, a college prep student, a Bible camp volunteer, active in countless athletic and school organizations. It's all part of her plan to get into the right college and become a judge one day. She is aware that the children of incarcerated parents are statistically more likely to end up on the wrong side of the law.
"I don't want to be another statistic of the kids who don't make it," she said. It's hard being the child of a prisoner, she admitted, but she detests the idea that anyone would feel sorry for her.
"You can sympathize, but don't take pity on us."
Deja's mom was the last mother to arrive in the prison visiting area Friday.
As families reunited around her, Deja waited, wondering why her mother wasn't coming. The visiting room door opened and closed eight times. Deja stood alone against the wall.
Finally, Barbara Phillips came through the door and Deja rushed in for a hug. "Hi, Mommy," she said.
'I Got Everything Today'
Jada climbed on the bus at St. James Catholic Church in Perris with a bright smile. She looked after her little brother, Dametrius, 6, and quickly made friends. She helped Sister Shrewsbury pass out food, games and prizes, but as the bus rolled closer to the prison, she lost her smile.
She held her stomach and cried silently. With a hug and gentle words from Sister Shrewsbury, bottled-up feelings poured out.
She hadn't seen her mother in more than a year, and it had been a painful jailhouse visit. Her mom had been shackled and tearful. They were separated by glass, and Jada couldn't hug her. She had lived with the image ever since.
Jada misses and worries about her mom, but she was afraid to go through another such visit.
But Friday was different.
Her mother, Sonya Bullette, ran to her, kissed her and marveled at how beautiful and tall Jada had grown.
Dametrius draped himself over his mother like a blanket, and made up a song, "I am so happy. I am so happy," he sang. "I got everything today."
Jada got everything, too.
She told her mom how she had helped on the bus and how her stomach hurt.
And her mother wrapped her arms around Jada and said, "Oh, poor baby."
And then her mother smiled.
Number of children with incarcerated parents in California: About 200,000
Number of children who witnessed their parent's arrest in the state: One in five
Number of women in state prisons: Almost 12,000
Average age of women in state prison: 36
Number of females in state prison who are nonviolent or are drug offenders:About 87 percent
Growth of state's female inmate population between 1983 and 2003: About 500 percent
SOURCE: LITTLE HOOVER COMMISSION AND GET ON THE BUS
Bay Area Business Women - On Line
Locking Up Abuse: What Female Prisoners Face Before, During, and
Published: March, 2007
Women work on their resumes at the SF Sheriff’s Department Women’s Reentry
Despite the misconception of the justice system that tends to be advanced by the media, real-life crime and punishment tends to be far more complicated. While people should indeed be held responsible for their actions, a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to jurisprudence may not necessarily serve the interest of justice — particularly when you examine the underlying issues associated with female incarceration.
There are currently over 11,000 women in prison in California, many of whom are incarcerated as the direct or indirect result of abuse. For instance, many of these women committed crimes in order to defend themselves and their children from an abusive partner. Others have either committed crimes, or confessed to ones they did not commit, at the behest of an abuser. Others have been arrested for drug charges, after self-medicating to numb the pain of being abused.
“One of the main things I’ve learned is that the vast majority of women who become incarcerated have been victims of childhood sexual and/or physical abuse,” says Karen Levine of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Women’s Reentry Center — an organization that gives women vital services upon being released from imprisonment. “It has kind of been the elephant in the living room, this whole issue of childhood sexual abuse. It’s unbelievable that we haven’t been doing more treatment around this.”
But for many female prisoners, the cycle of abuse doesn’t end when they are behind bars, because they are thrown into a prison system that is rife with even more abuse.
“The level of sexual abuse and sexual harassment is pervasive and omnipresent in women’s prisons. The majority of guards in women’s prisons are men. Prisons are set up to ensure that there’s no privacy so people are surveilled constantly. That means that men are watching women while they bathe, while they use the bathroom,” says Cynthia Chandler, the co-founder of Justice Now, a local organization dedicated to protecting the legal rights of female prisoners. “The entire geography of the institutions are set up create a sexually harassing environment, then on top of it, there’s sort of a culture of sexual harassment and abuse where that type of abusive behavior is tolerated and permitted and extremely difficult for a woman to report.”
Breaking Free From Victimization
Since 2000, Justice Now has championed for the legal rights of female prisoners, particularly mothers. Under California law, the state can take away children from prisoners who are not able to reunify with their children within six months — which is impossible given the lengthy sentences many of them are serving. Although the majority of women in prison have been charged with nonviolent crimes and are not a threat to their children, the state will still terminate their parental rights.
“Eighty percent of women in prison are mothers and the vast majority of them are the primary care provider for their child. So when men go to prison, there’s frequently still a mom available to help take care of the kids — but when women go to prison, there usually isn’t anyone else,” says Chandler.
In addition to working to reunite prisoners with their children upon release, Justice Now is also lobbying the legislature to pass a compassionate release law, which would allow prisoners who are terminally ill with a short time to live the chance to be released to the care of their families in order to tie up loose ends and create an environment of closure when they pass.
And while Justice Now works on the bigger picture related to the needs of female prisoners, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Women’s Reentry Center provides them with the day-to-day services that they need in order to survive. Since last summer, the Center — which is, in many cases, literally the first stop that women make on the road to re-assimilation after being released — has given women everything from clothing and food to help finding employment, housing, and childcare.
Levine also noted that counseling is an important part of re-assimilation, as it not only helps women cope with the abuse they have suffered in their lives, but it can also help keep them from being incarcerated again — which is particularly important because women in California have a 68 percent rate of recidivism.
“If we look at the history of prisons in the United States, and California
specifically, conditions have not gotten better,” says Chandler. Although
organizations like Justice Now and Women’s Reentry Center go a long way
toward helping female prisoners, she believes that the whole prison system
needs a complete overhaul before these problems can truly be solved.
For more information on services for incarcerated women, visit http://www.jnow.org
[posted online on January 5, 2007]
Every year, American taxpayers fund an estimated $60 billion for our incarceration system. This system staples together a network of public and corporate-run jails, prisons, pre- and post-release centers, juvenile detention centers and boot camps. All together, these facilities hold well over 2 million human beings, locked away without public oversight or scrutiny.
Yet throwing money at the perceived scourge of criminality in the United States doesn't appear to have had the desired effect: Despite the staggering incarceration statistics, violent crime has actually begun to creep up over the last two years, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report.
In the last several years, some signs have emerged of an increasingly organized movement of citizens, family members of the incarcerated, independent-minded judges and correctional or criminal justice experts--who stand in firm opposition to our punitive, nonrehabilitative incarceration system.
Viewed through an optimistic lens, the United States might genuinely be at the beginning of a trend toward real criminal justice reform. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have already paid far too high a price for shortsighted penological policies. Floridian Yraida Guanipa is among them.
Guanipa spent the last ten and a half years locked in federal penitentiaries in Florida, locked away from her Miami community, her extended family and two young boys.
Her offense: She agreed to pick up a sealed package for a friend, which turned out to contain cocaine. Although Guanipa had never been arrested before--and had never been a drug user--she was hit with a thirteen-year "drug conspiracy" prison sentence on par with a sentence that a major drug trafficker would have received. Guanipa's good standing in the community, her lack of criminal background and the fact that she had a 1-year-old and a 2-year old had no impact on her sentence.
The story has become sadly familiar to me, particularly as I have spent the last few years corresponding with, meeting and interviewing women like Guanipa in jails and prisons across the country.
In the decade of her imprisonment, Guanipa witnessed two suicides; countless incidents of medical negligence; the brutality of prison retaliation; and the everyday reality of sexual relations between male guards and female inmates.
Guanipa became an outspoken advocate for other prisoners as a self-educated jailhouse lawyer, but most prisoners talk about retreating within themselves to try to survive the ordeal. Concern for collective well-being is difficult, if not impossible, when individual survival is on the line.
"Unfortunately, that's what prison does to us," Guanipa explains. "It takes the human feelings out of our body, and we just try to survive."
Tasteless films like Let's Go to Prison notwithstanding, what really goes on in prisons is still a mystery to most Americans, as are the immeasurable collateral consequences of incarceration on families and communities. Arrest and incarceration are woven into the fabric of American life: Today, a black man has one chance in three of ending up in prison at some point in his life, and is more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college.
According to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US prison and jail population hit a new high of 2,193,798 men and women at the end of 2005, representing a 2.7 percent increase over the previous year. A record number of more than 200,000 women are now doing time behind bars--an estimated 80 percent of whom are mothers. Analysis by the Women's Prison Association has shown that female incarceration has jumped 757 percent since 1977.
More than 95,000 juveniles are also in custody, held in the kinds of facilities that only seem to make their lives more troubled than they were to begin with. As one 14-year-old girl put it to me in Seattle's King County Juvenile Detention Center, "This place just teaches us to be better criminals. It's like a criminal training school."
One in thirty-two US adults are now under some form of correctional supervision. Although Americans only constitute 5 percent of the world's population, one-quarter of the entire world's inmates are contained in our jails and prisons, something that baffles other democratic societies that have typically used prisons as a measure of last resort, especially for nonviolent offenders.
But mass incarceration in America remains a nonissue, largely because of a lack of any serious or effective discourse on the part of our political leaders. At most, election season brings out the kinds of get-tough-on-crime platforms that have already given us misguided Three Strikes and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.
But there are now a few signs that today's insatiable carceral state might eventually find it harder to find bodies to fill our already dramatically overcrowded facilities. In December, 2006, a federal judge gave Republican Governor Schwarzenegger until June 2007 to devise a real plan to relieve severe overcrowding in California's thirty-three prisons. Designed to hold no more than 81,000 men and women, California's state prison system is overflowing with more than 173,000 inmates who are often crammed in eight-person cells or can be found sleeping on packed-to-capacity gym floors. A New Year's weekend riot at a Chino State Prison involved hundreds of inmates and sent more than two dozen to the hospital. Schwarzenegger has already authorized
shipment of California inmates to private prisons in other states as well as more money for building new prisons. Thankfully, this approach has failed to pass muster with the federal court that could step in to order early release of prisoners unless more productive solutions are found to further alleviate overcrowding.
"I think the climate [for reform] has opened up," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "The issue is less emotional and politicized right now. "
Part of the reason for the slight climate shift has to do with the fact that taxpayers are growing increasingly tired of throwing money into fiscal sinkhole of multibillion-dollar corrections budgets. (California's corrections budget is a whopping $8.75 billion, yet two-thirds of prisoners still end up back in prison.) And then there is the fact that adult and juvenile violent crime rates have, until recently, been on an overall decline since 1993, and the hysteria generated by the crack cocaine epidemic has finally died down to a dull ebb.
As the public has slowly gained an understanding of serious drug abuse as a health and addiction issue, millions of American voters have signaled their own dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all-punishment model, voting for treatment diversion programs in a number of states, including the highly successful Proposition 36 in California.
Civil rights/liberties organizations ranging from the ACLU to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the organization was instrumental in reversing convictions resulting from the Tulia, Texas, drug round-ups of primarily black citizens based on the uncorroborated accusations of one police officer), have made it clear that the grossly disproportionate incarceration of people of color and poor people should be an urgent, front-burner issue for the country as a whole.
In December, 2006, the subject of what it might take to dismantle the American carceral system brought some 500 attendees to New York City. The conference, "Punishment: The U.S. Record," was organized by The New School for Social Research. The event brought together the likes of renowned Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner and Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in a unified call for radical, systemic change in the criminal justice system.
From Judge Gertner's perspective, this change necessitates a "re-education" of the judiciary, reclaiming their independence in a criminal justice system that has favored strict guidelines over judicial discretion--especially in drug cases--since the passage of the Reagan-era Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, the law that established the 100-to-one crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
With a new Democratic majority in Congress, a number of pending bills do seek to right some of the legislative wrongs of the past. Democratic Representative Charles Rangel has introduced HR 2456, the Crack -Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act, introduced in 2005 and still in committee, which would equalize the drug-quantity ratio and eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession. Even some conservatives have moved forward on criminal justice reform. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions's S 3725, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act, introduced in 2006, would reduce the drug quantity ratio to a twenty-to-one disparity and mandatory sentence for simple possession to one year.
Marie Gottschalk, author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America, cautioned progressives to remember that most political leaders have been slow to enact any significant reforms for fear of seeming weak on public safety issues. In some cases, she said, some of the most regressive legislation and leaps in incarceration numbers have actually occurred under Democratic stewardship, as was the case under former California Governor Gray Davis (with his unapologetically strong allegiance to the state's prison guard union, CCPOA) and President Clinton's signing of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely limited legal recourse for prisoners to appeal and their ability to plead for relief for abuses suffered while incarcerated.
While many people working in corrections take their jobs seriously, abusive or negligent behavior is a fact of prison life, as are sexual exploitation and violence, the use of restraint chairs, and chemical and electric weapons. Racism and race-based housing has contributed to major prison riots; extended use of supermax-style isolation cells; and shoddy and/or life-threatening medical care are all common problems. Add to this the fact that more than half of all prison and jail inmates report struggling with mild to severe mental-health problems, whose periods of incarceration only tend to exacerbate pre-existing problems.
Back at FCI Coleman in Central Florida, the relief that accompanied Guanipa's move to a halfway house last month--and her eventual release to the "free world" six months from now--is tempered by the knowledge of those she's leaving behind to face the day-to-day struggles of prison life.
"The hardships we endure here will be part of our lives when we are released," she says.
Study Faults Women's Prison Healthcare
October 7, 2006
Some prisoners held at the California Institution for Women in Corona failed to get basic health and dental care and told researchers they had often waited months to see a doctor or get their prescriptions filled, according to a study conducted by an advocacy group and the San Bernardino County Department of Health.
The inmates, interviewed in July and August of 2005, also told researchers they had often skipped visits to the prison doctor because of a $5 mandatory co-payment, which they say they cannot afford when they are making 28 to 30 cents an hour.
One woman said that there was no follow-up after she had surgery, and others reported they had never had a PAP smear, a standard test for cervical cancer.
The study, released Friday, was conducted by Kim Carter, who cycled in and out of prison 20 times before she got her life on track and became an advocate for women in prison.
Carter's report focused both on women in prison and those out on parole — and she is calling for more attention from public officials to the difficulties the women face when they reenter society.
She enlisted the help of statisticians at the county Department of Health, who helped her develop the questions for the prison focus groups and analyzed the data from both prisoner and parolee interviews.
"I was looking at women who are recycling in and out of prison, like I was, and their story wasn't being told," Carter said.
A number of inmates interviewed for the study said they faced major hurdles when they tried to enroll in drug rehabilitation programs, either because their offenses did not make them eligible or because the programs were full.
There have been major changes in the state's prison healthcare system since Carter conducted the interviews.
In February, a U.S. district judge seized control of the state's $1.2-billion prison healthcare system and transferred it to the jurisdiction of a federal receiver to improve conditions.
At the women's prison, Warden Dawn Davison said the institution was already addressing many of the problems highlighted in Carter's report. In the last several years, Davison said, she has hired more medical, dental and mental health staff to deal with the long waits for care. The prison also brought in a community college program and added five teachers to respond to complaints about the lack of access to education.
The prison plans soon to allow some pregnant inmates to keep their babies with them in prison for as long as 18 months before the inmates are paroled into special community centers.
"We've done a lot of good things at CIW to really improve those conditions that the ladies were talking about," Davison said.
Carter, who serves on a special commission within the California Department of Corrections that is working on improving conditions for female inmates, said she is heartened by the attention that prison healthcare is getting at the state level but hopes that city, state and county officials will pay more attention to the fact that women on parole are continually denied jobs and housing on the basis of their criminal records — often leading them to return to crime.
She is pushing for a new "re-entry commission" that would help track parolees in San Bernardino County, which has one of the largest parolee populations in the state.
"Right now, nobody is doing anything…. This hasn't been a priority for anyone," Carter said. "People tend to only want to look at the prison system itself, when the prison system is just one piece."
Carter began the study, "Invisible Bars," after launching her foundation, Time for Change, in 2002, and opening two sober-living homes for women on parole in San Bernardino. With $25,000 in seed money from the California Endowment, a private health foundation that gives money to community organizations, she launched another phase of her project: face-to-face interviews with 152 women on parole in the county.
She asked them about many of the same issues discussed with women in the prison — including health needs, living conditions and their experience trying to find a job after prison.
Of the female parolees interviewed, researchers found:
• More than 80% said they did not have jobs — often because prospective employers refused to consider them after finding out they had been in prison.
• 41% said they were homeless.
• More than 60% said they did not have health coverage, and the majority of the women covered were on Medi-Cal or local programs for indigents.
• 38% said they went to emergency rooms for healthcare.
San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales, who attended Carter's presentation Friday, said county and city officials are beginning to focus on providing a more supportive environment for former inmates to help cut crime.
Study: Freed female inmates face hurdles
SAN BERNARDINO - Inadequate health care and lack of social-support programs
are among the biggest barriers for women re-entering society after being
released from prison, a study released Friday reveals.
Upon their release, the ex-inmates are given $200 and dropped off. Many find themselves homeless, jobless and with nowhere to turn, said Kim Carter, the founder of Time For Change.
They often lack support systems and basics like food, housing, health care and work, Carter said. Faced with such few options, many end up re-entering the prison system.
Others become accustomed to being recycled in and out of the penal system, and come out with no other options - except to go back in.
"Some women never even make it past downtown," Carter said. "They go back in the next day and we house them for another six to nine months."
The report indicates there is a need for re-entry programs that will tend to the health and well-being of former female inmates by helping them with housing, jobs and health care and that such support would help break the cycle of abuse, addiction and incarceration and help them transition back into society - instead of prison.
"We`re placing these people at the bus stop with $200," Carter said. "What we`re saying is that we can take our resources and channel them into treating those people instead of housing and feeding them (in prison) with taxpayers' money."
Inadequate health care presents major problems for the formerly incarcerated, problems Carter knows first-hand. Drugs led Carter to enter a California correctional facility where, she said, health-care workers did not address abnormal results from a medical exam she had in 1993. She received no further treatment and was paroled in 1994.
Unable to land a job that included health care benefits until 1996, it would be three years from her initial abnormal test results until further tests revealed that Carter had cervical cancer.
She was given three months to live.
Chemotherapy and a strong will to survive helped Carter beat the cancer. In the following decade, she has dedicated her life to helping other women.
Carter worked side-by-side with criminologists, authors and health experts to formulate the report to add to the credibility of her message.
"I felt this community needed to see this information in another form other than the ways they were used to seeing it presented," Carter said Friday. "Seeing this information coming from a health perspective and coming from people with Ph.D.s, along with the work that I do - now it's credible, it's irrefutable.
"Now we have the ammunition from both sides in order to make a change in the community."
The report, which shows a breakdown of how seriously the problem affects communities across the county, studied a focus group of 20 women.
According to its authors, the purpose of the study is to:
Illustrate "the need for health care services for women both in and out of prison."
"Identify the need for wrap-around services for formerly incarcerated women."
"Present the findings of a health assessment survey."
Part of the study included a survey of 61 incarcerated women at the California Institution for Women near Chino and 152 former inmates who now live in San Bernardino County, mostly in the city of San Bernardino.
Conducted from March through April 2005, the survey revealed how homelessness, unemployment and a lack of education plagued the women after their release.
The results showed that more than 80 percent did not have a job and 56 percent said they had not been employed full time for more than a year.
The survey also showed less than half had a high school diploma or GED and 35 percent had not finished high school.
Adequate housing, too, was a formidable obstacle for the women. According to the survey, three out of four had been homeless at some point in their lives and 41 percent said they were currently homeless.
Elected officials lauded the report.
"Ex-offenders are failing to successfully reintegrate back into society because their punishment continues beyond the prison gates," said Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete- McLeod, D-Montclair.
San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales said Friday she supported the study because it was about much more than just "opening the door to a program with beautiful pamphlets."
Carter cares, the 5th District supervisor said.
"She wanted to be able to enable an individual - even before leaving incarceration - by preparing them with a road map to success," Gonzales said. "So that by the time they stepped into the community, there were insurance policies she was working on to enable them to succeed."
San Bernardino County is home to the second largest population of people on parole in California and the third largest in the nation.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,
there were about 11,000 parolees living in the county as of May.
To-do list for state legislators
Based on the study, Time for Change, a nonprofit organization, is making several recommendations, which will be presented to state lawmakers.
The report is available on Time for Change's Web site, www.timeforchange.us. For more information, call (909) 886-2994.
The report's recommendations:
Develop county/city resource centers designed to assist formerly incarcerated women with job training and other life-support services.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation should modify eligibility criteria for drug-treatment programs in prison and provide access to residential programs upon release.
Provide rehabilitative services to inmates based on their needs, not the needs of the institution.
Coordinate health-care systems both in and outside the prison system.
For women still in prison, remove barriers such as $5 co-pays for medical services.
For women outside prison, provide alternatives to emergency room visits.
For women outside prison, provide routine medical exams for disease prevention.
Increase the amount of money given to former inmates to accurately reflect the costs of items necessary to re-enter society: food, clothing, shelter and transportation.
Clearly define the protocol for who will receive financial support from the Parole Office and make it consistent in all parole offices.
Eliminate the question about prior felony convictions on job applications with agencies already required to do background checks.
Provide job training and vocational opportunities for people convicted of felonies, and provide access prior to and immediately upon release of a prisoner.
Modify federal subsidized housing policies to allow women with drug felonies to participate if they have successfully completed a treatment program.
Report: Female inmates need help
REFORM: Women aren't getting medical care and treatment for drug abuse, a nonprofit group says.
10:00 PM PDT on Friday, October 6, 2006
By GREGOR McGAVIN
California's embattled penal system, already under fire for crowding and other ills, fails to give female inmates the help they need to avoid returning to prison, according to a report released Friday by a San Bernardino group founded by an ex-convict.
The corrections system focuses on simply locking women up rather than reforming them through substance-abuse, medical-care and other rehabilitation programs. That means female inmates are leaving prison with the same problems that put them behind bars to begin with, according to the 88-page report from the nonprofit Time For Change Foundation.
"That's the part that's missing -- rehabilitation," said Kim Carter, who heads the foundation and turned her life around more than a decade ago after serving several years for drug and other charges.
The report, based on interviews and surveys of more than 150 current and former inmates at the California Institution for Women in Chino, all of them San Bernardino County residents, comes at a time of turmoil for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
A federal judge in July ordered a takeover of California's prison health system to avoid what he said were needless deaths. Several thousand inmates are scheduled to be sent to out-of-state facilities under an emergency anti-crowding measure signed this week by Gov. Schwarzenegger.
There are about 166,000 prisoners, male and female, in California's prisons. More than 75 percent have drug- and alcohol-abuse problems, corrections officials and experts estimate.
Of the roughly 115,000 inmates released each year, officials estimate, 70 percent will be back behind bars within two years, largely because of a dearth of programs to help them kick drugs and reintegrate successfully into society.
The problem is felt keenly in San Bernardino County, home to about 11,000 parolees -- the third-largest concentration nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Time for Change report calls on the state to invest in rehabilitation, instead of just incarceration. It also calls on the county to support programs that can help parolees successfully re-enter society by helping with housing, education, counseling and other needs.
"She has a grass-roots perspective on this problem," San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzalez said of Carter. "I think this report is needed."
According to the report, it costs about $3,000 a month to keep a nonviolent drug offender in prison and $1,800 a month to keep the person in drug treatment.
Many prisoners do not get badly needed medical aid, said Carter.
She said she nearly died of cervical cancer that went undiagnosed and spread throughout her body while she was in prison.
Carter said the women face even worse problems in and after prison than their male counterparts because "there was never a female model of the prison system created."
And female prisoners leave more children at home with no parent than male prisoners do, according to the report.
Joan Petersilia, a UC Irvine criminologist who has written extensively on problems within the prison system, said female inmates and parolees require more psychological counseling and other care and can be better motivated by using children and other relatives as incentives.
Some systemic reform already may be under way, experts say.
Under a state law that takes effect in January, nonviolent drug or property-crime offenders who complete intensive drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment in prison will be eligible to bypass the standard three years of parole, if they successfully complete further drug treatment after prison.
Petersilia, who has praised that new approach, has consulted with the Schwarzenegger administration on corrections reform and said the state has brought in outside experts and studied the problems of female prisoners and parolees. Among possible changes being studied are bringing female inmates closer to their homes so they can develop family and community ties.
"This is what works best to reduce recidivism of female prisoners," Petersilia said.
Who Are We to Judge?
Ever wonder what life is like inside the California Prison System? Here is a first hand account of the horrors of what is like in the Chowchilla prison for women, located in the Central Valley.
Who Are We to Judge?
I choose to define myself by my spiritual leanings, by my intentions, not by my surroundings. I am a psychiatric nurse by education. I have worked all my life in the health care field, the last twenty years in a leadership senior executive capacity for mental health organizations. I am a mother, a wife, an optimist, a nonconformist, and an animal lover. But now my surroundings threaten to swallow me up, engulf me in a sea of despair.
Six years ago my life was blown apart in a hurricane of events that I am just now beginning to put into some kind of perspective. My husband was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant while he was out jogging. Four days later, I was arrested and charged with killing my own husband – the man I loved and lived with for over thirty years, the father of our children.
Through an ego driven trial lawyer, a seriously flawed defense strategy, and a sequence of judicial rulings that allowed the jury to hear less than half of the actual evidence, I am now serving a 25 years to life sentence at Chowchilla prison. Even to write the words "25 years to life" is unreal and chilling. It all still seems like a terrible nightmare, except that the nightmare is the daily existence that I wake up to. My sleeping hours, my dream world is much safer… a kinder reality.
But I want to tell you much more than the story of the injustice done to me, for the story is much bigger than my plight. It is a story about society's prevailing need to find fault, to place blame somewhere, anywhere. It is a story about our inability to recognize the wisdom of rehabilitation as a viable consideration for troubled souls. The U.S. now incarcerates more than 2,000,000 of its citizens. In total 6.7 million people are in jail, in prison, or on parole: 3.1% of all U.S. adults, or 1 in 32! And the number of women in prison is growing at a rate faster than any other group in the U.S. Almost 1,300,000 are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. What are we doing here? As a mental health care giver, I am horrified at the sheer numbers of women who should be in a treatment setting instead of a prison. It is a story I knew nothing about until I was sent here.
Here in this geographic location defining the twin prisons of Valley State Prison (VSP) and Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) exists the largest concentration of incarcerated women in the world: more than 7,000 women in a few square miles. We are packed in, eight women to each small cell, originally built to hold four. The enormous range in age, race, and temperament exacerbates the stress of this constant crowding, noise, and regimentation. Most incarcerated women smoke, so although smoking is supposedly forbidden in the building, non-smokers must constantly choke on secondhand smoke. The correctional officers (COs) tell us they don't care, nor will they group non-smokers together in one cell.
There is never any privacy, no solitude; every day is filled with constant bickering, screaming, and racial agitation just from the severe overcrowding. We have to endure frequent and pointless cell searches for contraband, which includes scotch tape, paper clips, an extra state towel, etc. We are subject to "lockdowns" on the slightest pretext (like valley fog). We are lined up and marched over to the dining hall for meals, and four armed COs stand guard outside the door to make sure we don't take an extra 8- oz. carton of milk or exit with ice in our cups. We are treated like cattle, or worse, because cattle are generally well fed.
And what are we doing to "correct" these women? Even if we temporarily ignore the issue of whether these women should be here, removed from society, removed from their children, who then grow up in state systems, shuttled through foster homes… Even if we ignore the 1,300,000 non-violent people currently incarcerated… What are we doing with these 7,000 women? Couldn't they be doing something productive for society? Couldn't they be learning something of themselves, something about the patterns and choices that brought them here? What motivates them? What feeds their souls? What contributes to their real happiness so they may learn to work toward the betterment of themselves and their community?
Would it surprise you to learn that even the word "rehabilitation" has been removed from the California Department of Corrections (CDC)? Even that fragile hope of rehabilitating a human being who may have taken a wrong turn in life – even that illusion is gone. Don't we realize the future is a place we are creating, not a place we are going to? What will our future look like when we wake up and realize that we have traded educating our youth, our future generation, for incarcerating our troubled citizens? University funding decreased nationally by $945,000,000 while prison funding has increased by $926,000,000.
God knows I want to keep society safe as much as anyone else. Maybe more so because I know that the person who killed my husband is still out there. But locking away literally millions of U.S. citizens and then treating them like animals is not the way. Haven't we recognized that placing individuals in prison actually fosters criminal behavior instead of curbing it?
We are definitely not succeeding at keeping society safe; instead, we are creating an environment of fear and conflict, hatred and power. This prison industry is an industry gone awry -- gravely compromised, rampant with abuses and hatred. It is a terrifying breeding ground for racism, sexism, homophobia, and dominating exploitation of other human beings. We are warehousing people, punishing them and returning them to society worse off than when they entered the system. The violence that then comes out of these prisons is a much greater threat than terrorism. Keep things quiet, don't talk about the abuses, the special treatment granted for sexual favors, the drugs supplied by the COs. I know an inmate who for six months could get any kind of liquor she wanted – not even repackaged to hide it. COs covertly supply inmates with a wide array of contraband from cigarette lighters to heroin in exchange for favors or payoffs. I know of COs who literally reek of booze all day long, often stumbling, slurring through their work hours. Then they are "on leave" for several weeks. They return to work and the cycle starts all over.
Many of the COs (and most are male in this female prison) openly humiliate and denigrate these women and then laugh about it:
"Keep moving; you're attracting flies."
"Get your ass back in here and stop slutting around."
"Now what do you want? To put your mouth on my cigar?"
But to speak out against any of this guarantees retaliation in the ugliest of ways. One inmate was actually brave enough to report a sexual assault on her by staff. The incident was "investigated" and reasons were found to issue her a "115" (disciplinary action). Her telephone privileges were rescinded, cutting her off from her family, effectively preventing her from seeking legal help outside the prison for the assault she suffered. This is a horrifyingly difficult environment to try to survive in; many compromise a great deal to assure survival.
Health care is similar to that in a third world country. Many needed diagnostic tests, or simply a thorough assessment of symptoms, are needlessly delayed until it is a crisis situation, in some cases until the cancer is inoperable. Inmates are not routinely screened for Hepatitis C even though the transmission in prison is practically epidemic and the Center for Disease Control has requested all states to screen total prison populations for Hepatitis C infections. The Center for Disease Control further states, "The nation's prisons are primary incubators of the worst diseases affecting the national population."
One inmate in this yard tried for several days to access medical care for alarming symptoms. After waiting in the clinic line for hours, she was consistently refused care and derisively told to stop malingering and get the wheelchair she was in back to the clinic. The next morning she was dead. The inmates attempted CPR; the COs wouldn't touch her. You might assume that this degraded level of care at least carries a cheap price tag, but in fact the costs are staggering. California's starvation budget is disproportionately burdened by this corrupt system.
I am learning so many things in here. I am learning to rise above the stigma of being identified as a "criminal." I am learning to let go of the anger, the anguish. When I first arrived here, I was devastated, but it was a stunning and humbling experience to realize – these are also God's children. We are all souls trying to find our way in life. No person has any more or less value; no ethnicity, no occupation, no accomplishment has any greater or less intrinsic worth. Who are we to judge? Who are we?
Certainly my perspective has been radically changed by this experience. I am truly innocent. Yet I am not alone. According to the statistics published in the growing Innocence Projects and the Northwestern University Law School: anywhere from 10 to 25% of persons currently incarcerated are actually innocent of the crime they were convicted of. In the cases its staff reviewed, Northwestern University revealed a 60% error rate.
How can our society tolerate this error rate? What do large companies like IBM or Microsoft tolerate as a margin of error? And they are monitoring only machines and business processes, not the freedom of human lives. And why is the success rate for appeals only 3% when the known error rate in convictions is so high?
I have finally been able to let go of some of the personal sense of injustice. It is a great injustice… but on some level – so what? Injustices happen all the time; people contract diseases, get hit by automobiles, suffer great tragedies. So what? We still have to get on with life. We still all have a responsibility to add some comfort, bring more kindness, promote integrity in our daily lives regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. And in a larger context, we all also have a responsibility to speak out against a social wrong.
I am learning to live in the moment, to seek joy in small glimpses, to value the wisdom of the universe despite my surroundings and the constant fear. I am learning to look for the love and goodness in most people despite the façade or anger they may exhibit.
I know in my heart I will eventually get out of here; the truth will come out and it will set me free. I hope it is sooner rather than later. I hope I win the appeal even though the statistics are so discouraging.
Maybe in the bigger picture there is a purpose in all of this. As hard as it has been – and continues to be – to live through the horror of this great injustice that we impose on our fellow men, I know without a doubt that the rest of my life is meant to be dedicated toward amending this arcane and destructive system. So I know where my future lies. But what of the rest of these women in here? Someone has to help them. Someone has to speak out against the atrocities. And then everyone has to listen.
As Dostoyevsky wrote, "The degree of civilization a society exhibits is best determined by how it treats its prisoners."
Written by: Jane Dorotik W90870 CCWF 506-26-3L, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla,
Inhumane Treatment of Prisoners in Chowchilla
According to Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations for Crime Prevention and Corrections, "Institution heads shall maintain family visiting policies and procedures. Family visits are extended overnight visits, provided for eligible inmates and their immediate family members, commensurate with institution security, space availability, and pursuant to these regulations." The key word is eligible. Family visits used to be available to most prisoners in the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Frontera when it was the only women's prison in the state. They were in place at the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla until 1996. In October 1996 the state legislature outlawed family visits for many prisoners: those with life sentences; inmates under Close A and Close B Custody, a designation limiting in-prison movement applied to 375 women at CCWF alone; and those in Administrative Segregation (prison jail) or those guilty of various in-prison offenses.
J.S., a lifer nearing 24 years in custody, entered prison at CIW in
1982. She was 23 years old, and she was told that she'd surely be released
by age 36. She's 47 now. J.S. has two sons. Her boys were two and four
years old when she was imprisoned. J.S. says, "My husband considered family
the number one thing." The boys knew they would see mom at least once a
month for a visit. They could count on that. She says she raised her kids
in prison through family visiting.
J.S. says, "The first thing we did was put away the food." In those days, families brought in groceries from the outside and Match Light charcoal for a barbecue. After that, "each one of us would get a cool drink. We would all sit down at the table and have a family discussion to catch up. Each person could bring up any issue and we'd have it out there, good or bad. We couldn't leave that table until a compromise on each person's issue had been reached."
J.S. reminisces, "When I came to prison, I'd never heard the word 'heroin.' I came in young. My probation report described me as '21 going on 15.' I was taken in by the older ladies. They took me under their wings. They showed me how to be a lady and helped me grow up. Then you could get boxes from home with dresses, high heels, perfume, you know--girlie stuff. You could dress up and look like a woman."
J.S. arrived at CCWF on October 1, 1990, one of the first group of volunteers who came north from CIW to prepare the prison for opening. It was a gift to her family. They lived in Merced and Fresno, so seeing her at CCWF would eliminate major travel time and expenses. As she saw it, "It was giving back to them." If a scheduled visitor canceled, J.S. could call her nearby family and often they could come. Sometimes she got two visits a month.
"At CCWF in the 1990s they started taking the girlie stuff. The hair dye went because they said we'd disguise ourselves to escape, but we still kept our personal clothes. Since 2004 we can't even get personal boxes from our families. Now it's all vendors, all gray and white, no colors allowed. We look grungy, and the violence level went up. Now we're drab, sad, and unemotional-looking."
In 1995 the prison began to convert the visiting apartments, one by one, to offices. "When they took the first apartment, we knew it was only a matter of time before they'd take our family visits away." In the late 1980s there had been a flurry of publicity at CIW around family visiting. It involved Kathy Smith, imprisoned for giving John Belushi the lethal injection that killed him, and Susan Atkins, one of the Manson women. In interviews Smith glamorized prison and Atkins revealed that Atkins and her husband James were trying to have a baby. Doris Tate, mother of one of Atkins’s victims, and the Victim Services group became incensed. They started a campaign to take family visits away from ALL prisoners. Prisoners reached out for help and State Senator Richard Polanco helped halt the campaign for a number of years. But by 1996, with the public political mood shifting toward pure punishment, a bill restricting family visits was put forward at the state level. It focused on lifers, those convicted of violent crimes, and those who picked up a drug case inside prison. Family visits were outlawed for a large group of inmates.
In 1996, a week before J.S.’s last family visit, her husband died. During that visit her son told her, "Last night I was going to run away or slit my wrists, but I knew I had this visit with you, so I came."
J.S. says, "Now everything is gone. No visits, no family boxes. It's all punishment. The guards are lazy. They don't want to keep an eye on things. They lump us all into one mess and categorize everyone as the same. They make everyone look like a man, a man and hard, so they can treat us hard."
In 2005 the Criminal Justice Institute did a cultural assessment of the CCWF work and social milieus. Interviewers questioned many staff members, both custody and noncustody, and several inmates. Many guards referred to CCWF as ". . . the best-kept secret in the state. The lack of violent behavior . . . has resulted in staff becoming more accustomed to a 'relaxed' correction environment. Consequently, boredom and complacency have emerged and contribute to the culture at CCWF . . . Not being threatened or having to 'watch their backs' on a daily basis, results in staff from all levels making small issues into something larger."
J.S. says, "There are drugs in here but they don't come through Receiving and Release (R&R) because all merchandise is ordered from vendors. The vendor prices are high, sometimes 100 percent more costly than the same item on the street. All the boxes and books that move through R&R are unpacked by a guard and written on an inventory. It would be impossible to get more than a tiny amount through day visiting.” When asked how drugs get in, J.S. pauses then replies, "My belief . . . I think the institution allows so much in. There's too much observation: guards, cameras, binoculars and searches. I say, check the staff as they come into work."
J.S.'s most recent Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) appointment was July 14, 2006. She says, "I expect no change. It's like being on trial again. At every BPH session, one is forced to relive the events of one's crime many years before. The commissioners want all the little details. They want you to remember every minute of a report that's a quarter century old. They look at codefendants’ statements from their hearings and order you to respond. I don't know what my codefendants said.
"I'm different now. There's no regard for maturity. For women who kill, the majority are abused terribly in their early lives. I was molested since I was six. It's my first real memory.
"I don't even tell my family anymore. Knowing I'm going to a BPH hearing gives them hope and there's no hope. My family writes to the BPH and begs for my parole. It's too painful. The BPH always denies me. They want us to pay again and again . . . lawyers, courts, fees, all of it. If you can't, oh, well. Stay in prison.
"After the [overnight] family visits were eliminated for lifers, my husband was dead, so it was harder for my family to get my kids here. My older son lives in Oregon. My younger son lives in Fresno and he brings his daughter, my little granddaughter, to see me. My son says, "Mom, if the family visits are restored, write or call immediately. We'll come."
Some prisoners, mostly short-termers, can still have family visits every six weeks. The visits are limited to two days. The inmate and visitors must buy food from the prison's canteen list except for a few extra items. For those who qualify, the visits make prison bearable.
For the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to be more than Orwellian-speak, it must enact a program of true rehabilitation where more of the CDCR budget is spent on programs than on staff salaries. It must do all it can to reconnect prisoners with the larger society and to help them find their places in it. This can be done through better education, job training, and mental health programs than the ones that currently exist. Family restoration should be a top priority and family visits are a crucial element for such a goal. Limit the use of restricted custody levels (Close A and Close B) that only exist to enhance the number of staff positions and to further segregate inmates within the prison. Give us back our quarterly boxes from our families and/or friends; they sustain an important "link of love" and are much cheaper than vendor boxes for our families to assemble. Let us look like women again in all our individual permutations.
Note: The Criminal Justice Institute used CAP (the Institutional Culture Assessment Protocol), "a standardized process and instrumentation designed specifically for use in assessing a prison's culture,” to describe the CCWF work and living environments from June 6, 2005, through June 14, 2005. Its report was published January 5, 2006, by the Criminal Justice Institute, Inc., Middleton, Connecticut (860) 704-6400.
Sara Jane Olson is a prisoner, a mother and an activist. She is from
Minnesota, where her husband and daughters still reside, transplanted to
CCWF for a long - though impermanent - sojourn.
There is a historic effort under way today to provide women serving time in California's prisons with greater opportunities for success in life after their release, with a net benefit to these women, their families and society. If the political will is there, we have the chance to reduce severe overcrowding in our state prisons and break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.
The plan is to move 4,500 low-level female offenders out of the large, centralized institutions where they are housed and into much smaller secure facilities in the communities they come from. Studies demonstrate that placing inmates in community-based programs dramatically reduces recidivism.
These women inmates are serving time for nonserious, nonviolent offenses -- with the overwhelming majority serving time for drug offenses or property crimes arising from drug use. They do not need high-security measures that cost taxpayers an average of $36,200 per inmate, per year. They do need meaningful services, including substance-abuse treatment and education, vocational training, mental-health treatment and health care -- all of which can be provided in the community at a higher quality and lower cost than in a state prison.
With all four of California's women's institutions situated in just two counties, thousands of women are inevitably housed far from their families and potential support networks. To be successfully rehabilitated, these inmates need contact with their families, with culturally-appropriate services and with potential employers -- in the communities they will return to after serving their time.
The value of placing women offenders closer to their families cannot be overstated. Seventy percent of women serving time in our state prisons are mothers of children 18 or younger. Programs already in place in our state -- though on a much smaller scale -- show an enormous rehabilitative benefit from family interaction. Women in community programs that provide comprehensive services and give them frequent contact with their children in a healthy environment re-offend at a rate of just 14 percent -- a sharp contrast with the typical rate of 46 percent.
The impact on children is no less dramatic. The data show that separation from mothers puts children at a higher risk of ending up in prison themselves. The chance to break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration is reason enough to move these women from their remote locations closer to the people who will motivate and support them.
For these reasons, we have introduced legislation that will create gender-specific strategies to address the needs of female inmates and, where appropriate, provide for the transition of women from large-scale prisons into smaller community facilities.
There is strong bipartisan support for these changes and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has included funding to accomplish this in his proposed budget for next year.
Critics of these plans argue that too many people are already in prison as a result of mandatory-sentencing laws and technical parole violations and that our state's focus should be on rolling back increases in sentencing. These trends have indeed put many more women behind bars than belong there, and we must address that.
However, our plan won't expand prisons; it will actually reduce the number of women in prison by decreasing the rate of recidivism. Shifting nonviolent, low-level female offenders from prisons to community facilities and commonsense sentencing reform are complementary, not mutually exclusive.
We cannot turn our backs on the opportunity to improve the lives of women inmates and their families, just because it doesn't go quite as far as some would like it to.
We should move forward together and reap the many benefits that this
new approach to rehabilitation will provide.
Express your views
To contact committee members:
Phone: (916) 651-4118
Fax: (916) 445-4688
Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-San Jose, is assistant speaker pro tempore of the State Assembly and the author of AB2066. Barbara Bloom is an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Sonoma State University. She is a past president of the Western Society of Criminology and a recipient of the 2003 WSC Fellow Award for important contributions to the field of criminology.
A plan for female inmates
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
DESPITE UPHEAVALS in the state's prison system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is moving forward on one of the most significant reform efforts undertaken in any correctional system in the nation.
Or so say Schwarzenegger administration officials.
Buried in Schwarzenegger's proposed 2006-07 budget is an ambitious plan to move 40 percent of the state's female inmates into community correctional facilities closer to where their families -- and in many cases their children -- live.
Over the past 15 years, the number of female inmates in California prisons has doubled to 11,681 (as of May 17). Last year alone, the number edged up 8 percent. Schwarzenegger's plan is to eventually move 4,500 women to smaller facilities where they'll receive a range of rehabilitative services.
The plan recognizes that there are important differences between the male and female prison populations -- and that they need to be treated differently. In general, women have lower crime rates than men and commit fewer offenses, and less violent ones. Fully 70 percent of female inmates have been sentenced for drug, property or other nonviolent offenses. In many cases, the property crimes were committed to feed their drug habits.
Typically, female inmates have a history of substance abuse and mental-health problems, and have also been victims of sexual abuse or other trauma. Many are mothers with children under the age of 18.
Yet the state's prison system, dominated overwhelmingly by male inmates, is oriented toward handling men rather than women.
Schwarzenegger's plan is to seek bids from private contractors who will house nonviolent offenders in 75-, 100-, or 200-bed facilities. These will be "secure" facilities, meaning they will have locked doors so inmates cannot come and go as they please. But the new facilities will not have "perimeter" security walls or fences typical of a high-security prison.
Once there, the women will be provided with "wraparound" services, including mental-health therapy, substance-abuse treatment and classes in parenting, literacy and vocational skills. They will also have the opportunity to have more contact with their children.
State officials say the program will not cost any more than incarcerating women in regular prisons. They also point out that moving women out of high-security prisons will free up space for male inmates housed in overcrowded prisons.
"The main benefit will be to place women closer to their children and families, and reintegrate them back into their communities," said Barbara Bloom, a corrections expert at Sonoma State University and an advocate of programs responsive to the needs of women prisoners. "Ultimately, we hope it will reduce recidivism as well."
The program faces significant challenges. The primary one will be to encourage private contractors to participate. Local communities will also have to be convinced that facilities housing upward of 75 inmates, albeit female ones, won't be a risk to public safety.
Schwarzenegger's plan could be improved by placing at least some of the 4,500 women -- those at the least risk of re-offending -- in far smaller community-based halfway houses or treatment facilities. The program should offer a broader range of alternatives for these women, and should not be used as a cover to establish a network of small privately-run prisons throughout the state.
Officials say the next step is for the state Legislature to grant them the authority to enter into contracts with private contractors. The Legislature should do so expeditiously.
Susan Kennedy, Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, says that her boss is "fully committed" to prison reform. "His proposed budget reflects his commitment to lower the prison population, utilize community beds and add programs for parolees," she said in a telephone interview. Jim Tilton, Schwarzenegger's acting chief of corrections, told us he believes that at least a portion of the prison population "can be better served in local communities."
Schwarzenegger must declare whether he is fully on board. Because of questions raised about whether he is fully committed to putting "rehabilitation" back into corrections, Schwarzenegger must forcefully promote an approach that should make California a leader in how it handles its female inmates.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Protecting our prisoners
CALIFORNIA recently passed legislation that bans shackling female prisoners during labor and delivery. The inhumane practice was standard operating procedure in many California prisons, despite not a single recorded case of a prisoner in labor actually attempting escape. According to Amnesty International, shackling women in labor is still widely practiced in 21 states. Many states have laws which require physical restraint of all prisoners in hospitals or undergoing medical procedures, regardless of the severity of the illness or condition.
Such shocking mistreatment is only the tip of the ice berg when it comes to degradation and abusive treatment of women in U.S. prisons.
For the approximately 150,000 women currently in prison, there is little protection of basic human rights. Despite forming less than eight percent of the overall prison population in the United States., women constitute the fastest growing segment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. This factor routinely subjects women to cruel treatment by a system which is largely unequipped to deal with the rapidly growing female prison population.
The burgeoning number of women in prisons is largely correlated with the increase in arrests for drug possession over the last few decades. Three-quarters of women in prison are there for non-violent offenses and approximately 40 percent are incarcerated for possession of illegal drugs, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Despite the rapidly growing population of women prisoners, very little has been done to ensure that the human rights of women prisoners are safe-guarded.
According to Amnesty International, six states still have no laws specifically banning sexual relations between prisoners and custodial staff despite the fact that under international law, rape of inmates by prison guards is an act of torture. Three other states currently allow prison staff to claim sexual relations with prisoners as consensual. The problem is not only gender-specific, as allegations of rape by guards of male inmates is not uncommon.
It is shameful that there are still states without laws specifically banning sexual contact between custodial staff and prisoners both male and female. The power relationship the guard holds over the inmate precludes any type of validation of the relationship based on consent.
Numerous women have brought cases against correctional staff alleging rape, however, many have been silenced by hefty pay outs by state Departments of Corrections. According to Amnesty International, in 1998 the Federal Bureau of Prisons paid three women a total of $500,000 to settle a case brought by the women alleging that correctional staff had facilitated rape by allowing male inmates at federal institution into female inmates' cells in exchange for cash. The reported sanctioning of abuse and rape by correctional staff is not unique. The U.S. Justice Department initiated legal action against two states, Arizona and Michigan, following evidence of "systematic" sexual abuse and assault sanctioned by correctional officers.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2000 reported that over 60 percent of women in state prisons report experiencing physical or sexual abuse. Despite this staggering statistic, a 1997 Amnesty International study of 52 Departments of Corrections nationwide found that only 19 of 52 provided any kind of domestic violence counseling for women inmates and only nine had programs for sexual assault victims.
While California may have finally ridded itself of the archaic practice of shackling pregnant women and now provides access to prenatal care for its prisoners, its progressive undertaking is unique nationally. Federally, little is being done to ensure that prisoners, both male and female, are treated humanely. Federal legislation has repeatedly been proposed that financially penalizes states that fail to criminalize sexual relations between prisoners and custodial staff. Such legislation needs to be enacted, as the nine states which allow for such abuse are effectively sanctioning a form of torture.
While criminalizing sexual conduct between staff and prisoners remains by far the most significant reform needed to be undertaken, several other steps should be enacted to ensure that human rights of the growing female prison population are guaranteed. Shackling women during labor is unnecessary. States requiring prisoners to be restrained during any type of medical procedure (as many do) should reform their laws to validate the usage of restraints only when offenders are an actual flight risk. Additionally, as the pathetically low proportion of facilities offering counseling for the incredibly high percentage of inmates that have been abused shows, much greater effort is needed in the development of counseling and rehabilitation programs.
Sophia Brumby's columns appearThursdays in the Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Hale - Three Strikes Story
California Coalition for Women Prisoners
Three Strikes Legal - Index