Budget shortfalls are prompting California and other states to close prisons and shift inmates, pushing some facilities’ populations dramatically over capacity.
“Overcrowding has always been a problem with women in prison,” said Wendy, who has spent nearly two decades at California’s Valley State Prison (VSP). In a phone interview with Truthout, she recalls the prison’s overcrowding in 2007: “There were bunk beds in the day room and the gym. Everywhere you looked, there were people – 60 to 70 people were living in the day room.”
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), on July 31, 2007, 4,322 women were housed at VSP, whose design capacity was 1,980. By December 31, 2007, that number had dropped only slightly to 4,063.
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In December 2011, on the heels of the US Supreme Court’s decision that the overcrowding in the California state prison system is unconstitutional, the CDCR proposed converting Valley State to a men’s prison and transferring its women and transsexual prisoners to the neighboring Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). That month, CCWF was at 160 percent capacity with 3215 people.
“The CDCR has been talking about gender-responsive and gender-humane prisons. They said that women have different needs than men, but look at us now – women are overcrowded with eight to a room,” Wendy stated. A room, according to the Merced Sun-Star, is 348 square feet.
After the CDCR announced the conversion, despite threats of retaliation, 1000 people inside VSP and 200 inside CCWF sent letters against the plan to advocacy groups the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and Justice Now. “Women are not cattle. You can’t just shove us into a barn and [expect that] we will be all right,” wrote one woman.
As of January 16, 2013, with Valley State having been emptied of all but five women, CCWF is at 187 percent capacity with 3748 women, making it the state’s most crowded prison.
During the transfers, medications were withheld. Once at CCWF, women reported difficulties receiving them. CCWP campaign coordinator Colby Lenz told Truthout that one woman was taken off her medications for two weeks before she was able to appear before a 12-doctor panel; they reassigned a new medication regimen.
Medical staff reportedly told an 81-year-old woman that she was old and going to die anyway, so they weren’t going to give her anything. Others complained about a particular nurse who was randomly withholding medications.
In addition, those in VSP’s mental health programs must be placed on a waiting list before accessing any mental health counseling. Wendy noted that, although CCWF only has six self-help groups, VSP’s 56 self-help groups, run by the women themselves, have been discontinued.
“No one was able to take their materials to start a [new] group. They [prison staff] are citing overcrowding and the cost to taxpayers of shipping these papers across the street,” said Lenz.
“People [transferred] are in a really horrible state. They are really traumatized,” she said. “The prison wasn’t giving people blankets, pillows, toilet paper, tampons or cleaning supplies.”
Claiming a shortage of staff to supervise the increased numbers, the prison placed many under lockdown. CCWP has been told that some women were transferred from general population at VSP directly into segregation units at CCWF. In addition, women reported that guards were provoking violence against the VSPW “bitches.” The mother of one transferee told Truthout that her daughter had said that conditions were so awful that she was contemplating suicide.
Closing Prisons to Close Budget Gaps
California is not the only state consolidating its prison population into fewer facilities. In Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn closed the notorious Tamms “supermax” prison, where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. While Tamms’ closing has been celebrated by family members and human rights advocates, it has not impacted the overcrowding of the Illinois prison system which, as of June 2012, held 14,000 more people than it was designed to hold. However, Laurie Jo Reynolds of Tamms Year Ten, a grassroots coalition dedicated to closing the supermax, noted that neither Pontiac nor Menard, where the population at Tamms was transferred, were overcrowded. She also noted that, with the closing of Tamms, staff members will be moved to prisons that currently have staff shortages.
As a further cost-cutting measure, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) is planning to shut down Dwight Correctional Center, one of the state’s three prisons for women, two juvenile prisons and three transitional centers. The closures are predicted to save the state $62 million . The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, has expressed concern about closing Dwight, shifting its 1051 women to the already overcrowded Decatur women’s prison and converting the men’s Logan Correctional Facility to a women’s prison.
“Crowding of female inmates and effective delivery of services threatens to become even more problematic. Absent a clear plan to reduce population, the shuttering of Dwight is likely to exacerbate crowded conditions, which may further undermine the health, welfare and safety of staff and inmates,” stated the association’s 2012 report on Lincoln Correctional Center. In addition, John Maki, the association’s executive director, pointed out that Dwight is 80 miles from Chicago, where the majority of women lived before their incarceration. Moving them 100 miles further west makes visitation less likely for the 78 percent of women who are mothers.
In his 2013-2014 Executive Budget, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed closing two women’s prisons, Bayview and Beacon, to save the state $18.7 million. Bayview has been closed since Hurricane Sandy. Located in New York City’s gallery and condo-filled Chelsea neighborhood, its sale is expected to increase savings to $62.1 million in 2014. As of January 1, 2011, 2,206 women were incarcerated in New York’s state prison system with nearly 40 percent from New York City.
Tina Reynolds and Mercedes Smith are formerly incarcerated women and on staff at WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling HerStory), a NYC-based advocacy and support organization. They have co-facilitated WORTH’s RiseUp! Reentry Leadership Development program at Bayview for the past several years.
They told Truthout that closing Bayview eliminates the opportunity for mothers to strengthen relationships with their children while imprisoned. In addition, because it is a work release center, women at Bayview have the opportunity to find employment in their home city.
“What’s in place for women’s success once these prisons are closed? Women don’t just do their time as individuals. They’re part of families and communities,” said Reynolds.
Alternatives to Overcrowding
In September 2010, then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 1266, authorizing the Alternative Custody Program (ACP), which allows women convicted of non-violent offenses with less than two years of their sentence left to complete their sentences at home on an ankle monitor. The program became effective the following year.
California’s department of corrections estimated that 45 percent of its women’s prison population would be eligible for alternate custody, thus making Valley State unnecessary for housing incarcerated women. However, prisoner rights advocates and formerly incarcerated women have stated that fewer than 200 people have been approved for release since then.
“Isabel” was one of the few women who had been released under alternative custody. She was initially denied. “My case wasn’t a substance abuse case,” she told Truthout. “[When I arrived in prison], they told me not to bother going through a substance abuse program.” She was told to take the substance abuse program offered at CCWF and reapply the following year. The Institutional Classification Committee, which decides on ACP applications, also told her that she owed too much in restitution.
“The legislation doesn’t say anything about restitution,” Isabel pointed out. “Making 18 cents-an-hour in prison isn’t going to make a dent in my million-dollar restitution.”
However, Isabel and her family did not give up. She reached out to advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which called both the CDCR and state Sen. Carol Liu, the bill’s sponsor. Her son also called the senator’s office. Five days later, Isabel was told that if she went to a CDCR-funded residential treatment program, she would be released on an ankle monitor. She agreed.
Other women have not been as fortunate. Those with health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, have been denied. Isabel recalled that one woman was denied because her family’s rural home lacked an indoor toilet. “She’s never had an indoor toilet, so she was denied.” Another woman was told that, because she had less than six months left on her sentence, the CDCR did not want to process her paperwork. Considering that incarcerating a person for one year costs nearly $49,000, Isabel noted, “They’d save a lot of money if they just processed her paperwork.”
Advocates in other states also are pushing for measures that will allow people to be released earlier. In 2009, Illinois governor Pat Quinn suspended the state’s MGT (Meritorious Good Time) Push, which provided sentencing credit to people in prison. Before its suspension, more than 1700 people had been released under MGT Push. Of those, only 56 (or 3 percent) returned to prison, most for violating the terms of their release. In January 2010, MGT was permanently outlawed. In 2012, Illinois advocates successfully helped pass SB2621, a measure that awards sentence credit for people in county jails and prisons who successfully complete rehabilitation treatments. Although it has been signed into law, the Illinois Department of Corrections has yet to implement it.
With the impending closure of Dwight, advocates have concerns about the availability of programs that qualify for sentence credits. Laurie Jo Reynolds, who toured Dwight with the John Howard Association in 2012, noted, “Very few people can participate in Dwight’s programs.” The prison’s dog program, for example, is popular but less than 15 women actually participate. In addition, those serving long sentences rarely benefit from programming; priority is given to short-termers.
The increased distance also will affect programming. Budget cuts have eliminated state funding for many programs at Dwight, leaving programs run by outside volunteers. Gail T. Smith, senior policy director at Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), told Truthout, “The number of program providers that [currently] come to Dwight from Chicago will not be going to Logan.” The increased distance and travel time will necessitate that providers stay overnight, an expensive prospect for volunteers.
Smith also said that, at a meeting in December 2012, Illinois corrections officials told CLAIM that 40 percent of women in its state prisons are eligible for release under home monitoring. Thus far, IDOC has released 175 women (or six percent).
CLAIM and its peer support group Visible Voices have a Reunite Moms and Kids Campaign, advocating that greater numbers of women be released. “Releasing 40 percent of women would alleviate prison overcrowding. It would also repair the damage that the separation inflicted on their families and communities,” stated Smith. However, she voiced CLAIM’s concern that women not be released into the community without appropriate services to help facilitate their transition.
On Saturday, January 26, 400 people, complete with banners and marching bands, gathered at Chowchilla for a freedom rally outside VSP. From there, they marched to CCWF where they shouted “We are here for you!” to those locked inside. With mail delayed four to six weeks, it is too soon to hear from those locked inside, but in a blog post, Mari Gray, recently released from VSP, recalled, “At the last big protest in 2007, we could hear the drums from inside. It was so powerful and moved us so much to know that people cared about us and were speaking out. For the most part when you’re stuck in prison, you just feel thrown away.”
To truly solve overcrowding, people inside women’s prisons, family members and outside supporters demand that California corrections officials:
• Release more people through its Alternative Custody Program;
• Implement parole for people in prison over age 55;
• Grant compassionate release for the terminally ill;
• Stop incarcerating youth. Although the US Supreme Court struck down mandatory life without parole for juveniles, people continue serving long sentences for actions they committed in their youth. “I know people serving 25[years] to life and they were 15when their crime happened,” noted Wendy.
“Linda,” the mother of a daughter arrested at the age of 16 and sentenced to 25-to-life, agrees. “For kids, a 25-to-life sentence is insanity. That’s not rehabilitating anyone. I don’t see how [being in prison] is helping her.” She added that, even for those not serving long sentences, CCWF has “too many people and no programming. How are they rehabilitating anyone if there’s no programming?”
The push to shrink California’s bloated prison population does not end with Saturday’s rally. “People need to let the government, the CDCR and the people know that women should be coming home,” said Gray, one of the small handful who have been able to return home.