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July 5, 2006 - NewStandard News (US)

Fight Against New Women's Prison Takes on Incarceration Habit

by Megan Tady

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

July 5 -- When the construction of the all-female jail in Chicopee, Massachusetts is complete, more than 130 women will be bused in from the Hampden County Corrections Center (HCCC) where they are currently imprisoned with 1,220 male inmates.

After more than ten years of mixed-sex incarceration, officials in Hampden County say the new jail will offer female prisoners a facility of their own, and a chance to have appropriate programming and a more stable environment.

But with the construction of the all-female facility already underway, critics of the jail are still protesting that the "space of their own" rhetoric is simply a guise to build another multi-million-dollar facility.

Critics also say building a jail for female prisoners -- the majority, like their male counterparts, are non-violent offenders -- does not recognize the real social ails behind the rising jail population, and fails to offer a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation.

Every month, Holly Richardson, one of the main organizers of the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition (SHaRC), joins other members of the coalition to demonstrate across the street from the emerging jail. SHaRC is made up of 29 community and prisoner-rights advocacy groups. Each protest brings a new theme -- "Education, Not Jails," "Healthcare, Not Jails" -- but the message is always the same: women prisoners would be best served through community treatment programs, rather than imprisonment.

Critics of the jail are protesting that the women need a "space of their own" rhetoric is simply a guise to build another multi-million-dollar facility.

"When people say, 'What should happen to the women that are in this men's jail?' we say that women could be 'de-carcerated' from that jail now," Richardson said. "Women could serve different sentences in their homes and in their communities."

Richardson said women who commit drug- and alcohol-related and non-violent crimes should receive help, not punishment. A study of the inmate population at HCCC funded by the National Institute of Corrections and published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly found that 49.9 percent of the female population could qualify for "intermediate sanctions" rather than imprisonment because their crimes were non-violent; the same was found for the male population, at 43.1 percent.

Although Kate DeCou, assistant deputy superintendent at HCCC, said she welcomes community treatments for prisoners, she said they simply do not exist. In the meantime, she will continue advocating for gender-responsive facilities.

DeCou told The NewStandard that the county wants the new jail because the environment at HCCC is extremely uncomfortable for women, who live in close proximity to men.

"We've got 1,500 men looking at them closely out their windows every time they move," DeCou said. "That's just one tiny piece of it: the dignity."

DeCou said a legacy of sexual abuse -- 88 percent of female inmates at HCCC reported they were sexually abused as a child; 55 percent as an adult -- makes the environment inconducive to rehabilitation.

"When people say, 'What should happen to the women that are in this men's jail?' we say that women could be 'de-carcerated' from that jail now. Women could serve different sentences in their homes and in their communities."

Richardson and her group, however, are skeptical of the county's sudden concern for the women prisoners. They lambasted the county for taking more than ten years to protect women from mistreatment.

Not only is there a safety issue for the women at HCCC, but DeCou said that the resources for women's programming are usually usurped for the larger male population. "It's hard to stretch those resources," DeCou said. But having an all-female facility, she added, would allow the county to "meet the needs" of the women.

But SHaRC maintains that the needs of the women will only be met through responsive community programming, rather than new facilities for imprisonment. The coalition is calling for 70 percent of the state's Department of Corrections budget to be reinvested in programs to treat drug- and alcohol-addicted people, create jobs for released prisoners and provide funds for education and healthcare.

"If we really wanted to solve the problem of 'criminals,' we'd look at the root and invest money into the communities that are most hurting," Richardson said.

More Laws, Less Public Assistance

Solobia Hutchins, an organizer with the activist group Arise for Social Justice and a resident of Springfield, which neighbors Chicopee, said she's tired of watching her friends get sent to jail.

"It hurts to know that all these people could be doing things in the community," she told TNS. "I'm 25 years old and most of my friends are either dead or in jail."

Hutchins's sentiment is a shared one, as communities across the United States have seen a dramatic and startling rise in female incarceration. A report commissioned by the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice found that female imprisonment has increased 9 times over the last 30 years; in 1977, around 11,000 women were living in state or federal captivity; in 2004, 103,310 women were imprisoned. Although male prisoners still outnumber females -- there were 1,390,906 male prisoners in 2004 -- the female population is increasing at a faster rate.

"We think that [removing] women [has] a disproportionately destabilizing effect on poor communities because they make up so much of the informal system of support."

Ann Jacobs, executive director of the Women's Prison Association, an advocacy group for female prisoners, said the reason for this "incredibly punitive" era in US history can be attributed to a number of factors, including mandatory sentencing, strict law-enforcement policies and the "war on drugs."

"So many women have been pulled into the system because of the system's focus on the apprehension and conviction -- and for longer and longer sentences -- for drug crimes," she said. Nearly 32 percent of women 21 percent of males in state prisons are locked up for drug offenses, according to 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Richardson said she refuses to buy into the "myth" that women are simply more prone to commit crimes than they were before. "It's not that we have more criminals; we just have more laws to criminalize behavior," she said.

Many critics of the judicial and corrections systems see a direct correlation between the cuts in social programs throughout the country, and the spike in female imprisonment.

"We've cut back on public-assistance support, access to education and the kinds of things in the past that might have helped someone live more successfully in the community," Jacobs said.

Contributing to a cycle that perpetually depresses communities in need, under some federal laws, people who have been convicted of drug crimes are ineligible to obtain some social benefits. These benefits include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, federally assisted housing and financial aid for post-secondary education.

"It's hard for people to go to college," Hutchins said, noting that it is unaffordable out-of-pocket, and federal financial aid is off-limits to those convicted of a drug offense while they were a student.

Although some states have created exemptions, others do uphold the federal laws. According to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, fifteen states do not allow convicted drug felons to receive food stamps.

Iris Wallace, a resident of Springfield who was formerly incarcerated at HCCC, said six years after her release, she is still struggling to get on her feet. Wallace said that as of now, she is basically homeless.

"You get clean, you get sober, you get out of jail and you want to be normal," she said. "But you can't get a job, and that's just very discouraging."

A Burden on Social Networks

Jacobs of the Women's Prison Association and Richardson of SHaRC both say that focusing on the effects of female imprisonment is not meant not exclude male prisoners.

"I would argue that men who commit low-level, non-violent offenses deserve a shot at community corrections too," Jacobs said. "Men are fathers, too. Men need to make their lives work in the community."

But as the female prisoner population has remained mostly invisible in a patriarchal criminal-management system, many advocates are stepping up to provide a voice for women. Women prisoner advocates say they are finding that the increase in imprisoned women is taking a toll on social networks, families and children.

A 2002 study funded by the Department of Justice (DoJ) found that removing women from communities through incarceration introduces a burden to the community because of the multiple roles women play.

"We think that [removing] women [has] a disproportionately destabilizing effect on poor communities," Jacobs said, "because they make up so much of the informal system of support."

Another1994 study by the DoJ found that at least two-thirds of female inmates had at least one child younger than 18 years old. "Whatever the shock is for the [incarcerated] individual, it's overshadowed by the concern for the kids," said Jacobs.

The incarceration of women has a ripple effect throughout families.

"Other adults in the home who are aging, that the mother may have been involved taking care of, there isn't that kind of informal support for them anymore," Jacobs said. "Basically other public systems are sharing in the burden of incarcerating someone instead of finding ways of dealing with it in the community."

Breaking the Punishment Mentality

Iris Wallace would have liked a second chance. "We don't need to put more women in jail," she said. "They just need help."

"Help" in the state of Massachusetts, however, is still -- and increasingly --taking the form of incarceration for both women and men. Along with the women's jail in Chicopee, a new men's facility is currently being built in Greenfield, another men's jail was constructed in Barnstable in 2002, and the county sheriff in Somerville has just called for 600 new jail beds.

"We have become so over-reliant on using jails and prisons in this country that it's almost laughable," said Richardson of SHaRC. "The crime-and-punishment mentality that just comes off of the tongue so easily and so quickly is like nothing else. People don't even know what they're saying: 'You ought to go to jail for that. Do the crime, do the time.'"

Jacobs said the societal addiction to easy answers, one-size-fits-all solutions and sloganeering as an approach to policy making has to change.

"As long as we keep making social policy based on elected officials giving us easy answers to complicated social problems," she said, "we're going to keep getting ineffective ways of dealing with what is a more-complicated intersection between poverty, race, gender and lack of education, employment and access to the ability to make a living."

In the meantime, Richardson says she will be protesting as she watches the construction of the Chicopee jail from across the street.

"We just keep moving along and challenging what we need to challenge," she said. "And hopefully we'll be at the right moment, at the right time when something gets ready to crack and to give. And we'll be ready to seize that opportunity."

© 2006 The NewStandard. All rights reserved

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