Susan Burton

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–The nation’s largest state corrections system is failing to break the cycle of violence for the thousands of women who are in prison or on parole and their children, a watchdog commission has found in a new report.

As in many other states, the California Department of Corrections warehouses female prisoners in large rural prisons far from their homes. This policy and many others must change to allow women–most of whom are nonviolent offenders–to better re-enter society and remain connected to their children, according to the report.

The report was issued last week by the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency that makes recommendations to the governor and state legislature. In 2003, the commission declared the state’s correction agency a "billion-dollar failure." Some of that report’s recommendations–such as curtailing parole for nonviolent offenders–are just beginning to take effect.

"At this moment, no one can credibly defend California’s correctional policies or be satisfied with the Department of Corrections’ capacity to administer these policies," said Michael E. Alpert, chair of the Little Hoover Commission.

Five-fold Rise in Female Inmates

The number of women in California’s prisons has increased five-fold in the past 20 years, to about 10,000, or 10 percent of the state’s prison population. About 12,000 more women are on parole. Nationwide, more than 1 million women are in prison or on parole, an eightfold increase since 1980. As in California, nearly two-thirds of women in U.S. state prisons are serving time for nonviolent offenses. And two-thirds of incarcerated women in California are single parents.

The consequences of not rehabilitating the prison system and the women who are in it can be seen in the lives of inmates’ children, the report’s authors said. Research, they say, has shown that children of women in prison have more behavioral problems and are more likely to be in foster care or become prisoners themselves.

"If we fail to intervene effectively in the lives of these mothers and their children now, California will pay the cost for generations to come," said Commissioner Teddie Ray.

The commissioners point to a program in Alameda County, east of San Francisco, that allows incarcerated mothers to play a greater role in their children’s lives and helps them readjust to society as a model for success. Called Maximizing Opportunities for Mothers to Succeed, or MOMS, the eight-week course and one year of case management after release has helped lower recidivism rates, according to the county.

The MOMS course offers education in parenting and life skills. Classes range from resume building, rental applications, career and wardrobe help to meditation, sexual identity and having sex while being clean and sober. Recovery from abuse, other forms of violence and drugs is a key component. Independent programs also offer models to support to newly released women offenders.

A New Way of Life, founded by former inmate and drug addict Susan Burton, assists women in Los Angeles on parole get housing, jobs and health care. Burton was named a Women’s eNews 21 Leader in 2003.

Widespread History of Abuse

Appropriate substance abuse and treatment programs are in great need among female prisoners and parolees, as well as recovery programs for victims of violence, the commission reported. Some 57 percent of female offenders in California were physically or sexually abused prior to prison, compared with 16 percent of men. And, 80 percent of female and male prisoners have a substance abuse problem.

"Many of these women, like their children, were victims before they were criminals," the Little Hoover report states. "Tragically, their children are poised to follow in their footsteps, becoming the next generation of inmates and parolees if state leaders fail to act."

Moving beyond a punishment-based corrections system won’t be easy, but it would ultimately be less costly and would improve the lives of women coming out of the system.

"With few exceptions, correctional systems have been designed to manage the behavior and characteristics of male offenders," said Dr. Barbara Bloom, a professor of the Department of Criminal Justice and Sonoma State University, who testified before the commission. "Understanding the gender-based characteristics of women is critical to gender-responsive policy."

State and federal policies often are barriers for women getting out of prison, Bloom said. Women convicted of drug offenses are no longer eligible for federally subsidized child support (welfare) or food stamps and federally funded housing programs can turn down anyone with a drug-related conviction. Parental rights are terminated after a child has been in foster care for 15 months, while the average sentence for incarcerated women is 18 months. And state policies of paying relatives less than non-relatives for providing foster care creates more obstacles for women to be reunited with their children, Bloom said.

Lifting Ban on Assistance, Housing Incentives

The Little Hoover Commission recommends lifting the ban on female offenders’ access to CalWORKS, the state’s cash assistance program to families, which would improve their chances of getting jobs, child care, housing and drug treatment. Creating tax credits and bonuses to developers who build housing for female parolees and fully funding drug treatment programs would also help with the transition from prison to society, the commission reported.

"Women’s most common pathways to crime are based on survival of abuse, poverty and substance abuse," Bloom said.

Jeanne Woodford, director of the state Corrections Department, said she is reorganizing the department, including adding a direct-report assistant director whose primary focus is women. But she said that the department already has gender-specific programs, such as parenting, anger management and substance abuse treatment and sexual abuse recovery. The Community Prisoner Mother Program allows women with children to be housed closer to home.

"Are we doing enough? No. Are we doing what we can do within the resources we have available Absolutely. Can we do more in the future? Most assuredly," Woodford said in a statement.

The department, with a $5 billion annual budget, will issue a plan in the next year to better meet the needs of women offenders, Woodford said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pledged to reform the corrections system, which has one of the worst recidivism rates in the nation and among the most severe overcrowding problem, with state prisons now at 180-percent capacity. Among the prospective changes is tying reform-program participation to release, but these ideas have yet to take effect.

Improving corrections programs for women could have other desired effects.

"Fixing the system for women parolees also can be a good test of the correctional system’s desire and capacity to improve," Alpert said. "Lessons learned improving outcomes for women can inspire and guide the management of the critically necessary larger reforms."

Rebecca Vesely is a reporter at the Oakland Tribune.

For more information:

A New Way of Life:

Little Hoover Commission–
Breaking the Barriers for Women on Parole:

MOMS Program