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The State

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

At 19, she had her first child, who landed in foster care because Bishop was "too strung out on drugs and had no money for food and diapers." A few years later, Bishop wound up in the hands of the Corrections Department, arrested for possession of methamphetamine and for cashing phony payroll checks she created on a computer. Her trip to state prison followed three county jail terms for writing fictitious checks.

By August 2004, Bishop had a second daughter in foster care and was in trouble again. She was caught with stolen checks and also convicted of violating parole by leaving her county without permission.

"I relapsed after doing a [drug treatment] program and got sucked right back into the old lifestyle," she said.

Bishop went to Valley State Prison for Women in the San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla. There, she shared an eight-woman cell with convicted murderers imprisoned for life with no possibility of parole, a blend of roommates not typical in men's prisons.

"You're mixed in with lifers who have no concern in the world," said Bishop, 28. "They're trying to fight, trying to run the room. They ... threaten you."

The California Legislative Women's Caucus has made incarcerated women its top priority this year. In an unusual April fact-finding mission, four lawmakers visited Valley State, and two of them spent the night.

They went through processing as inmates do, minus the strip search, receiving bedrolls and cell assignments. They ate in the dining hall, slept on the thin mattresses and asked women about their problems and personal stories.

Some complaints mirrored those in men's prison: Many inmates said they were hungry all the time and could not land spots in academic or job-training classes. What differed were complaints about medical care and concerns about children.

Measured on a per-inmate basis, the Corrections Department spends 60% more on healthcare for women than for men. Reproductive issues are cited as one reason, but women also arrive in prison with a greater incidence of HIV and AIDS and have more mental health needs. Some inmates told the legislators that they had not had a mammogram or Pap smear in years.

More disturbing, the lawmakers said, were the inmates' deep worries about their children. Two-thirds of women behind bars in California have children younger than 18, half of whom never visit because of the distance. Telephone contact is possible through collect calls, but most prisoners' families cannot afford it.

Carla Fortier, 43, has three sons who live with relatives in Los Angeles. Two of them were born behind bars.

"I've missed all the graduations, the first words, the first steps, all of that special stuff," said Fortier, whose inability to shake a crack addiction has made her an off-and-on resident of state prisons for the last 19 years. "Once, my youngest called me Mom. But when I went to prison and came home again, he was back to calling me Carla."

The legislators who visited Valley State returned to Sacramento with one overriding conclusion.

"The model for women in prison in California is wrongheaded," said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who was joined on the sleepover by Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge). "Most of the inmates we spoke to were in for DUIs and drug offenses.... Why are we spending billions upon billions to house these people in such a high-security environment?"

Leaders in California's corrections hierarchy have begun to ask themselves similar questions. In February, they formed a commission of wardens, community activists, researchers and others to redesign prison rules, programs and practices to reflect gender differences.

The state has also hired as advisors two nationally known researchers -- Owen and Barbara Bloom, a Sonoma State professor -- who are experts on female offenders. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reorganization of California corrections, which is to take effect July 1 and is to focus on inmate rehabilitation, includes a first-ever deputy director for women's programs.

Officials say most of the changes behind prison walls should not cost money. They are trumpeting one victory already. After years of protest from female inmates and their families, male guards may no longer conduct pat searches of women.

Dawn Davison, who runs one of the four California lockups housing women, called that a key achievement. Because more than half of female inmates have been physically or sexually abused, she said, they were traumatized anew when pat-searched by men. But the new policy, she added, is only a start.

"For years people apparently felt that an inmate was an inmate was an inmate," said Davison, warden at the California Institution for Women in Chino. "What makes us think that when a woman comes to prison and becomes an inmate, she becomes the same as a man?"

Women are less violent than men, not only in the crimes they commit but also in their behavior behind bars.

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