Prison System Fails Women, Study Says

State policies designed for violent men make female offenders'  rehabilitation difficult, an oversight panel finds.
By Jenifer Warren
Times Staff Writer

December 16, 2004

SACRAMENTO - California's one-size-fits-all correctional system is failing one group of offenders more dramatically than any other: the 22,000 female convicts and parolees, whose crimes are overwhelmingly nonviolent, according to a study released Wednesday by a government oversight panel.

Continuing its critical reporting on the state's $6-billion-a-year penal system, the bipartisan Little Hoover Commission said the number 
of women in California prisons has increased fivefold during the last two decades. Despite that surge, the state continues to run a system with policies, practices, programs and facilities designed mostly for violent men, the report said.

Few women leaving prison receive help finding a job, housing or counseling for the drug addictions that typically landed them behind 
bars. Compounding their struggle, women convicted of drug crimes - about one in three offenders - are barred by federal rules from 
receiving most welfare benefits and, in many cases, do not qualify for public housing.

Not surprisingly, nearly half of all female ex-convicts violate their parole and wind up back in prison, almost always for nonviolent 
behavior, the report said.

The costs of such failures are steep - for women and their families, the report said. About 64% of women offenders are mothers of minors, and of those, nearly half are single parents.

As a result, their incarceration and re-incarceration take a heavy toll on their children and on the state's child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Research shows that children of imprisoned parents are five to six times more likely than their peers to end up behind bars, and 10% are in foster care.

"If we fail to intervene effectively in the lives of these women and their children now, California will pay the cost for generations to 
come," said Commissioner Teddie Ray, chairwoman of the subcommittee that produced the report.

The Little Hoover Commission is composed of five public members appointed by the governor, four members appointed by the Legislature, two senators and two Assembly members. Created in 1962, the panel provides oversight of government agencies in hopes of improving their efficiency and service to the public. Its reports are submitted to the governor and lawmakers, often leading to legislation.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman, Terry Thornton, said prison officials agreed with the report's conclusions. She said that over the last two months, the department had begun investigating ways to tailor programs, housing and other aspects of its operations to the needs of women.

In addition, prison officials have applied for a federal grant to identify initiatives in other states that have improved the odds of success for women inmates.

Jeanine Tobias, 36, said the report's findings mirror her experience. Tobias, released in mid-November after serving 10 months on a parole violation, has been in and out of prison since a drug conviction in the 1980s.

"There's nothing in that environment that helps them with addiction or job skills or any of that," said Tobias, who is living with her newborn baby boy at the New Way of Life transitional home for parolees in Los Angeles. "Most people get out and they don't have anywhere to go, they don't have any funds, and they're back out on the streets and back in jail. It's a blessing for me to be here."

The report comes during a year of intense scrutiny for the Department of Corrections, which operates 32 prisons with about 165,000 inmates, an all-time high. Officer misconduct, cost overruns, shoddy medical care, the scarcity of rehabilitative programs and the use of lockdowns to manage gang violence are among the issues investigated by the Legislature, the independent Office of the Inspector General and others in recent months.

Because their numbers are comparatively small, women offenders have received less attention from prison reformers. The average female convict in California is in her late 30s and was probably a victim of physical or sexual abuse early in life. She is addicted to drugs, has mental health needs and most likely was sent to prison for using narcotics or stealing to support a habit, according to the Little Hoover Commission.

Despite these and other special characteristics of women convicts, California "has remained focused, almost singularly, on a policy of 
punishment and incapacitation designed for male offenders," said the 72-page report.

While male offenders are scattered at prisons throughout the state, most women inmates - 75% - are housed at two large lockups in 
Chowchilla, a remote San Joaquin Valley town far from the urban centers where most of the convicts previously lived.

That isolated location, the report notes, strains family ties - considered a crucial factor in whether a parolee succeeds or fails. More than half of the children of female prisoners never visit their mothers during their incarceration, in part because of transportation 

"Despite the relatively low security risk of female inmates," the report said, "the primary considerations in the design and operation of 
these facilities are preventing escapes and minimizing violence behind bars."

The commission also faulted the department for its gender-blind programs. With the exception of two small programs - 140 beds in all - for pregnant offenders or those with short sentences and children under 6, the vast majority of programs in the four women's prisons are identical to the offerings in male lockups, the report said. Less than one-third of female convicts are enrolled in academic, vocational or job training classes.

The report includes a series of recommendations to improve conditions, such as using halfway houses and other community programs as alternatives to prison for some inmates, shifting responsibility for parolees to local governments, and appointing a director of women's programs to guide reforms.

Among those applauding the commission's work was Barbara Bloom, a professor of criminal justice at Sonoma State University and one of the few scholars who study women offenders.

Bloom endorsed the report's recommendations and stressed that although prison officials could certainly improve their performance, "this is a problem that goes way beyond corrections and won't get fixed without strong involvement from the community."

Most female offenders, she said, come from communities that lack the sort of safety net that might have helped them avoid a criminal 
conviction in the first place. When they return to those communities, Bloom said, those difficult conditions remain, so it's no wonder many parolees run afoul of the law again.

"Somehow, we as a state have to acknowledge that this is a systemic problem, and encourage communities to get involved with these women," Bloom said. "Otherwise, this cycle of incarceration will just continue, generation after generation."

Source Los Angeles Times

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