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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

Statistics from 2004 show that 29% of California's female prisoners were serving sentences for crimes against people. For men, the figure was 52%.

As for their conduct once imprisoned, officials could find no record of a female prisoner in California killing another. By contrast, 14 male prisoners were killed by fellow convicts last year.

And although assaults and even small-scale riots are common in men's prisons, fights among women are usually "nothing more than a lovers' quarrel and a little slapping around," Davison said. Attacks on staff by women, she added, rarely go beyond a kick delivered by an inmate resisting an order.

Yet the state's two biggest lockups for women -- Valley State and the Central California Women's Facility, also in Chowchilla, with a combined population of 6,700 -- operate under rules like those at prisons housing Charles Manson and other notoriously violent males.

Leaders of the union representing prison guards are wary of a rose-colored view of female offenders. Although they support safer penitentiaries that better prepare all inmates for their return to society, union officials say many women who end up in state prison have run afoul of the law numerous times before.

"They may be nonviolent offenders, but a lot of them have five felony convictions before they ever see any prison time," said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. "Sometimes the clanging of the door is the wake-up call that's needed to push an individual to do something positive in their lives."

Others question the fairness of handling female convicts differently from men. The criminal justice arena has long been dominated by the concept of equality, with the same treatment owed to all. But criminologists say equal should not necessarily mean identical. There are reasons, they say, why female offenders deserve unique consideration.

Topping that list is their role as mothers. In California, more than half the female prisoners are single parents, and their family obligations create challenges less prevalent among men, particularly as they make the transition from cell to street. Although all parolees struggle to find work and avoid doing the things that sent them to prison, it falls to women in particular to simultaneously reconnect with children, line up child care and cope with other family needs.

Those convicted of drug crimes -- about one in three female offenders -- are barred by federal rules from receiving most welfare benefits and, in many cases, do not qualify for public housing.

Some activists believe that California's tendency to manage all inmates as a homogenous group is reflected most strikingly in the treatment of pregnant women.

Since 2001, more than 1,100 state inmates have delivered babies. Most arrive pregnant, but a small number conceive during overnight family visits on prison grounds.

Typically, incarcerated women give birth in a locked community hospital ward guarded by several correctional officers. Despite such security, department regulations require the use of wrist or ankle restraints during labor. Although the restraints are not specified during delivery, Davison, the warden at the Chino prison, acknowledged that reality did not always match the printed rules.

"There is no woman in the throes of labor who is going to jump up and try to escape," she said. Her goal: to ensure that no California inmate is shackled during labor or childbirth.

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) wants to accomplish the same thing and has introduced a bill she hopes will do so. The legislation won approval in the Assembly last month and awaits action in the Senate.

The Times recently interviewed inmate mothers at the Leo Chesney Center in Live Oak, between Sacramento and Chico. The private prison houses minimum-security convicts under contract with the state. The women, all of whom gave birth while imprisoned at the state's larger lockups in Chino or Chowchilla, called delivering babies behind bars an experience they had tried to forget.

Some, like Sierra, who went through it, start to finish, with one or both hands strapped to the bed. Others were cuffed by a wrist or ankle throughout labor but had the restraints removed at the moment of the birth.

After delivery, a few women qualified for one of 70 spots in a community-based program that allows mothers and children to live together. But most had to surrender their babies within a day or two to relatives or foster care. Then the women were shipped back to prison.

Jessica Foster is waiting and hoping to occupy one of those coveted 70 spots.

Foster, 22, went to prison after cashing a stolen check. Initially, she had been placed on probation. But after three violations -- for being drunk at a nightclub, failing to turn in a probation report and possessing a marijuana pipe -- she was sent to Valley State.

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