SACRAMENTO — Radically reshaping their approach to women prisoners, Schwarzenegger administration officials plan to move 40% of the state's female inmates out of their cells and into neighborhood correctional centers.
Most would probably be housed in Los Angeles County, which sends more women to prison than any other county.
The inmates -- about 4,500 to start -- would be able to live closer to their families and receive education, job training, drug and alcohol counseling, and other help that few now get in California's severely overcrowded penitentiaries.
All of the new centers would be secure facilities run by private companies under contract to the state. Only inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as drug or property offenses, would be eligible. Some prisoners would be allowed to have their children live with them.
The plan, most of which requires legislative approval, reflects a growing consensus among experts nationally that female inmates are ill served by a one-size-fits-all correctional system designed for violent men. If adopted, the initiative would make California a leader among states remaking prison systems to reflect differences between the sexes.
The proposal also offers the state a way to ease the severe overcrowding plaguing the $8.1-billion correctional system.
With the total inmate population at an all-time high of 168,000 -- enough to fill Dodger Stadium nearly three times -- tensions on cellblocks are rising and wardens are wedging convicts into gyms, TV lounges, even hallways. Almost every prison is packed to twice its intended capacity.
The crowding, coupled with a severe vacancy rate in the correctional officer ranks, requires some guards to work as many as six double shifts each month.
By moving 4,500 women into community beds, officials could free up an entire prison for the overflow of male inmates, providing temporary relief while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushes his proposal to build two new lockups with bond money.
The plan for female convicts is buried in the state budget the governor proposed last month and has not been widely discussed in public. Officials acknowledge that shifting prisoners into community beds may alarm some neighborhood residents.
Resistance also is likely from the powerful guards union, which wields considerable influence in the Legislature and has long been bitterly opposed to the privatization of prisons.
Others are optimistic, arguing that public wariness will diminish once the profile of the inmates -- mostly mothers whose crimes make them a relatively low security risk -- becomes known. The large majority of female prisoners -- about 66% -- are serving time for nonviolent crimes, with an average stay in state custody of 13 months.
"We need to tell our communities who these women are and remind everyone that these offenders are coming home to their neighborhoods sooner or later," Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman said recently.
Several lawmakers have pledged to back the proposal.
"The overwhelming majority of women in prison are in for low-level crimes that do not require the sort of expensive, high-security setting we're providing them," said Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View).
"We know there will be people who say this sort of move is soft on crime," said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). "But it's really about being smart on crime."
Like other states, California has seen a steady increase in its female inmate population and now houses 11,400 women -- almost twice the number in 1990. Most, about 6,700, are in two high-security prisons in the remote San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla, far from the big cities where they live and their children await their return.
An additional 2,200 are at the California Institution for Women in Chino and the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. The rest live in three camps (two in San Diego County, one in Malibu); a private prison in Live Oak, north of Sacramento; and in small programs for new mothers and the drug-addicted that are scattered around the state.
A year ago, the Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog panel appointed by the governor and Legislature, published a report calling California's strategy for female offenders a failure. Among other problems, California remained largely wedded to a policy of punishment and incapacitation designed for violent men, the report said.
As a result, half of these women eventually return to state prison, mostly for nonviolent offenses. The social and economic costs of that statistic, according to the report, includes lasting damage to California's young generation, because two out of three female inmates have at least one minor child.
In response, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation launched plans to remake its prisons to better address women's needs. It hired two prominent experts on female convicts as advisors and invited scholars, legislators, ex-felons and others to join a commission to suggest improvements.