California Wants to Reduce Prison Overcrowding, Yet Keeps Women Locked Up

By Jessica Pishko Oct 13 2014


Nonviolent female prisoners. Image courtesy of Last Gasp

In 2011, under mounting pressure to decrease the prison population, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) created the Alternative Custody Program (ACP). It’s a program designed to forge a path for low-level female inmates to return home (under electronic surveillance), care for their children, and reintegrate into their communities. The policy is currently the subject of a lawsuit that it discriminates on the basis of sex, but in theory, it seems like a prison authority might have finally gotten something right.

That’s what Cynthia thought when she appeared before the panel (called an Institution Classification Committee in CDCR lingo) after applying for ACP. After getting her paperwork straightened out and applying three times, she was told she was denied. She needed a teeth cleaning before her application could be processed.

Another woman was denied because of a computer error: Her dentistry was up to date, but a bureaucrat hadn’t changed her status, so she remained behind bars.

In the offices of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), letters (which you can read here) have piled high from women who want to return home to their families and amend for their crimes. But very few of the eligible inmates are given a real chance to take advantage of the opportunities that ACP promised. In one of the letters, an inmate named Anna wrote: “I know I’ve made mistakes in my life, but I’m ready for a change. Yes, I’ve been in and out of prison, but don’t only look at my record, look at what I did and all my programs.” Anna is currently in prison for identity fraud. She has not been released.

Michelle, who has four children at home, was denied ACP because of a mistake in classification—her crime was embezzlement, but it was mistakenly classified as “violent,” rendering her ineligible. Misty Rojo, the program coordinator at CCWP, has received reports from women who were denied release because they had a pit bull as a pet and because they received medication for a treatable medical condition like high blood pressure.

Before the women are released under ACP, they’re subject to a pre-release interview that includes sensitive questions about their histories of abuse and other mental anguish. The Justice Department has determined that at least half of all female inmates have been victims of physical or sexual abuse and one-third have been raped prior to incarceration, and appearing to harbor lingering psychological trauma from this abuse can prevent release. Even worse, the people asking these questions aren’t licensed therapists, according to Rojo, and they intentionally ask questions that cause the women to break down into tears then accuse these women of being “mentally unstable,” which means they are not eligible for release.

That’s what happened to an inmate named Theresa, who wrote a letter to CCWP explaining that she “was not prepared for what took place in my ACP classification hearing.” Theresa met all of the criteria for ACP and had no disciplinary actions. She participated in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and anger management. But in her hearing she was asked about her suicide attempts as a minor as well as her childhood and adult molestation and rape. She felt blindsighted by the process and dejected at the result, which was a denial of her ACP application.

These stories help to illustrate why out of the estimated 4,000 women eligible for ACP, only 420 have been released in the three years the program has been active. (The CDCR told me that it did not keep track of how many ACP petitions were denied.) California’s prisons are overflowing—so why would the state try to keep its women inmates behind bars? It could have something to do with California’s Governor Jerry Brown making deals with private prison contractors to build more facilities to house these women.

Women are one of the fastest-growing segments of America’s prison population, and more than half of these women—at least in California—are non-violent offenders. Women, along with gender-nonconforming inmates, are also some of the most vulnerable inside prison; rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence are higher among women than men. Even further, it’s estimated that 75 percent of incarcerated women are the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that their imprisonment leaves a trail of disaster for their families.

In the policy debates over California’s deplorable prison system, women’s prisons have frequently fallen by the wayside. Overcrowding leads to a range of obvious problems, from overuse of solitary confinement and more frequent lockdowns (since there are too many inmates for the staff to control) to a lack of basic supplies and unsanitary conditions. But perhaps the most severe indirect consequence of overcrowding is poor medical care for the inmates. In December 2013, a court-appointed panel of medical experts issued an independentreport condemning the conditions at CCWF a litany of institutional deficiencies.

More shockingly, a recent investigation from this summer by the Center for Investigative Reporting discovered that nearly 150 female inmates were given unauthorized sterilizations between 2006 and 2010 at CCWF, CIW, and Valley State. A new bill just signed by Governor Brown last month supposedly outlaws the practice once and for all.

CCWF and CIW have been the target of scrutiny for poor medical care for nearly two decades, but instead of releasing female prisoners who are unlikely to pose harm—thus, potentially alleviating some of these issues—Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a contract worth $9 million a year with GEO Group, the second-largest private prison contracting company, to take over a prison facility in McFarland, California that will house about 260 women (with an option to double its size). Press releases for the prison claim that the facility will boast services like job training, drug programs, and other therapeutic interventions, although there is no guarantee that transferred inmates will be able to continue any of their current programming.

But the move is not an auspicious one. While the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) doesn’t have the best track record, it looks like a luxury hotel compared to GEO Group, which is the subject of hundreds of lawsuits for violence, mistreatment, and poor medical care in its facilities.

In 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of an epileptic Texas man who died from an untreated seizure while in solitary confinement. GEO Group was called out for the abysmal conditions in a Mississippi juvenile facility by a federal judge, who held that the private company allowed “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate.” On top of concerns about privatized prisons, the latest outcry over the proposed McFarland facility crystallizes the ongoing problem of California’s women’s prisons, facilities plagued by scandals and problems that remain largely out of the public eye.

While the GEO contract might temporarily alleviate overcrowding, it doesn’t solve the real problem, which would be to allow the release of non-violent offenders and maintain the programs that help these women reintegrate into their communities. (ACP, by the way, provides no assistance for women seeking employment or housing.)

The popularity of Orange is the New Black has drawn attention to the plight of women in prison. When I talk with people about prisons, I often hear how difficult it is for these women to speak up about their treatment because they have felt so consistently ignored by prison authorities who operate in a system dominated by hyper-masculine principles. The CDCR, like all prison regimes, lacks accountability because their decisions are always shrouded under the guise of “public safety,” something no politician seems bold enough to question.

Women inmates are less likely to riot or institute hunger strikes, which emboldens the CDCR to ignore them because they are less in the public eye—contrast, for example, the very public hunger strikes at Pelican Bay with the relative silence at CCWF. These women suffer from what is called a “double invisibility,” hidden from the public’s eyes because no one will take the time to listen.

Follow Jessica Pishko on Twitter.

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