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Rethinking Treatment of Female Prisoners

They live in a world designed for violent men. Advocates for change say privacy, dignity and closer family ties are needed.

June 19, 2005|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

LIVE OAK, Calif. — Nine months after her belly began to swell, Martha Sierra arrived at that moment of deliverance every pregnant woman craves and fears.

But as she writhed in pain at a Riverside hospital, laboring to push her baby into the world, Sierra faced a challenge not covered in the childbirth books: Her wrists were shackled to the bed.

Unable to roll onto her side or even sit straight up, Sierra managed as best she could. The reward was fleeting. Denied the new mom's customary cuddle, she watched as her daughter, hollering and flapping her arms, was taken from the room.

Sierra, 28, is an inmate at a California state prison north of Sacramento. She has trouble speaking of the birth, ashamed that her mistakes meant her child was born to an incarcerated mother. She also remains distressed and puzzled by her treatment: "Did they think I was going to get up and run away?"

Criminologists say Sierra's experience symbolizes a disturbing truth about correctional systems in California and beyond. With males vastly outnumbering females behind bars, prisons are typically designed and managed for violent men.

As a result, women prisoners, most of them serving less than two years for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, are thrust into a one-size-fits-all world. Inside, they are governed by rules and practices that ignore their distinctive pathways into crime and do little to help them mend their tattered lives.

That may be starting to change. In a national movement gathering steam in California, growing numbers of scholars, activists, wardens and lawmakers are pushing to reshape prisons to reflect differences between the sexes.

At a minimum, advocates want more female guards, to protect women's privacy and dignity; more food for pregnant inmates; easier access to sanitary products; and regulations for visits that enhance, rather than discourage, the preservation of close family ties.

More ambitiously, some criminologists envision shifting most women out of the remote maximum-security penitentiaries typical in California and some other states. Instead, they say, many female convicts would do better -- and save taxpayers money -- in neighborhood centers laden with rehabilitative services, from job training to drug treatment.

The female population in the nation's state and federal prisons is at an all-time high -- about 103,000 -- and the rate of incarceration is growing at nearly twice that of men, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. In the last 10 years alone, the number of women behind bars jumped 51%.

The increase does not reflect a rise in crimes committed by women. Rather, longer sentences -- especially for drug offenses and repeat felons -- and restrictions on the ability of inmates to get out earlier with good behavior are largely responsible. Women also are far more likely today to go to prison for public order violations, including prostitution, driving under the influence and begging.

"Women are typically arrested for survival crimes: dealing drugs, selling sex for drugs, bad checks, welfare fraud, credit card abuse," said Phyllis Modley, program manager for the National Institute of Corrections in Washington. "They do not commit the predatory crimes that men do at nearly the same rate. Yet they are sent to a correctional system that doesn't distinguish."

During the 1990s, new research created a more detailed picture of how female convicts differed from males, Modley said. Now, corrections officials in states as politically dissimilar as Indiana, Missouri and Minnesota are concluding that "gender matters," according to Barbara Owen, a prison sociologist at Cal State Fresno.

"No state does everything well" in managing female inmates, said Owen, recently hired as an advisor to the California Department of Corrections. But isolated programs show results, she said.

Indiana's main women's prison ensures that convicts stay heavily involved in their children's lives, for instance, while Missouri emphasizes inmates' transition to parole. Minnesota offers a rich array of alternatives to traditional prison, close to women's homes.

Katrina Bishop, a fair-skinned, ponytailed mother of two from Salinas, embodies California's typical female offender.

Raised by an alcoholic mother and a stepfather addicted to methamphetamine, she was kicked out of high school at 15, she said. Disowned by her mother and molested by a ranch hand where she lived, she took shelter in garages, cars, on the streets. Told she would never amount to anything, Bishop said, she set about fulfilling that prediction, engaging in continual "self-sabotage."

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