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January 15, 2006 - Post-Crescent (WI)

Ranks Of Women In Wisconsin's Prisons Grow

State Considers Changes In System To Break Cycle Of Crime

By Wendy Harris, Post-Crescent staff writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

FOND DU LAC -- Less than a year ago, Samantha Luther entered prison stressed, depressed and three months pregnant.

As a convicted drug offender who violated her probation, she faced a year's hard time, with three months credit for sitting in the Waushara County Jail.

"I don't know what went wrong with me," said Luther, a petite, 21-year-old who began wearing prison "greens" when most of her peers were wearing new college sweatshirts. "I had a good childhood, but I felt useless and out of place."

Last March, Luther, a Menasha native, joined more than 700 inmates at Taycheedah Correctional Institution near Fond du Lac, the state's largest prison for women. Female prisoners still remain a minuscule fraction of the population -- just under 1 percent of the U.S. female population -- but their numbers are growing.

Nearly 1,300 female offenders are serving time in Wisconsin's prison system, a number that has increased fivefold in the past 15 years, according to the state Department of Corrections. With nearly 22,000 adults serving prison terms in Wisconsin, women account for 6 percent.

The U.S. Department of Justice says the number of women in prison jumped from about 12,000 in 1980 to about 105,000 in 2004.

Criminologists, sociologists and advocates attribute the burgeoning female inmate population nationwide to the war on drugs and tougher sentencing laws. But the get-tough laws meant to catch kingpins have instead snared thousands of low-level offenders -- including women.

And after two decades of women crowding into state and federal prisons, corrections officials are grappling with the implications: Two-thirds of female prisoners leave behind minor children. Most are single moms, with an average of two kids, who were the custodial parent before they were arrested. Most plan to reunite with their children when they get out, advocates say.

Meanwhile, about 5 percent of female inmates enter prison pregnant.

An incarcerated woman may be guilty, but her children are innocent. But they, invariably, also will pay for her crime. For babies born to incarcerated women in Wisconsin, the mother-child bond may never take root.

Older children, meanwhile, experience the trauma of separation. They face shame, sadness, social stigma and the upheaval of moving in with relatives or family friends. In about 10 percent of cases, children will be handed over to the foster care system.

Research shows that these kids are more likely to wet their beds, have problems in school, abuse drugs and join gangs. And they are five times more likely to end up in the correction system as adults.

For decades in this country, female and male inmates -- officially -- have been treated equally in prisons designed for violent men. But experts and advocates say this one-size-fits-all approach has short-changed women offenders, and ultimately, their children. And society ends up paying the price.

"The male model of incarceration is particularly difficult and harsh for women, because it doesn't consider the parenting issues," said Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice in La Jolla, Calif. "Yet men get many more programs than women do."

Things are starting to change in Wisconsin.

As part of Gov. Jim Doyle's Kids First Campaign, launched in 2004, inmates and their children are getting new consideration. The state Department of Corrections last summer announced it was reorganizing to create a separate and single operational structure for female inmates. It is now in the planning phase of developing and enhancing programs it hopes will help break the cycle of incarceration and help female offenders mend their broken lives.

"What we are looking to do, in the long run, is reduce the number of children who grow up and commit offenses," said state Corrections Secretary Matt Frank. "We've realized we needed a more dedicated approach to dealing with female offenders."

'I'm So Scared'

As she acclimated to life at Taycheedah, Luther's biggest worry was she would lose the baby she carried.

Her first, Jayden, now being cared for by Luther's older sister, was born prematurely. Luther worried preterm labor would hit again. Jayden, who was born after she got out of jail the first time, weighed less than 4 pounds.

"I'm so scared," said Luther, six months pregnant, during a prison interview last July at Taycheedah. "If I have cramps or concerns, it takes a day or two to hear anything back and it could be too late."

When a Taycheedah inmate has a health concern, she writes it down on a slip of paper that is delivered to the health services unit. She then waits to hear back.

The dozen Taycheedah nurses and the facility's doctor get up to 800 medical requests per week from inmates. Sifting out valid health concerns from the chronic complainers can be tedious.

Luther was worried, too, she wasn't gaining enough weight. Every time nausea and vomiting set in -- which she said lasted several months -- she lost weight.

At 5-foot-2, Luther said she normally weighed 122 pounds.

Four months into her pregnancy, she weighed 109 pounds; at six months, only 121 pounds.

"That's bad and I'm scared. I am hungry all the time."

At Taycheedah, pregnant prisoners are given an extra snack bag in the evening, which includes milk, bread, crackers and a piece of fruit. It wasn't enough, she said. So she relied on other women to share food with her.

Luther acknowledged, however, that her developing fetus would reap one large benefit from her incarceration: a drug-free womb. She was participating in Taycheedah's alcohol and drug abuse rehabilitation program.

"As bad as it is here, it was meant to be," she said. "I'm in a great (drug rehabilitation) program."

Second Chance Unravels

Luther started dabbling in drugs and alcohol at 15, she said. She got in with the wrong crowd, dropped out Menasha High School in 10th grade and when she was 18 she was busted for marijuana possession.

"The majority of women who come into prison are in for nonviolent offenses, most typically property and drug offenses," Frank said.

Nationally, nearly a third of female offenders in prisons committed drug crimes, according to the Justice Department. The number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose nearly tenfold from 1986 to 1996.

Meanwhile, 29 percent of female inmates are in for property crimes and 6 percent for public order violations -- prostitution, drunken driving or probation violations among others.

About a third of female inmates are in for violent crimes compared with just more than half of all male inmates. Three-fourths of violent female offenders commit simple assaults, considered the lowest level of violent crimes.

After Luther got out of jail the first time, she vowed to clean up and pull her life together. She moved back in with her mom, gave birth to Jayden, and shortly thereafter landed a job waiting tables. She moved into her own apartment.

"I had my own apartment, me and Jayden were living together, I had my own job, it was beautiful," she said. "I was supporting him and me."

Then things quickly unraveled. The restaurant was sold to a new owner, who hired a new wait staff, she said. She was out of money, she lost her apartment and her stress was mounting. She left her baby with her mom for the weekend while she looked for a new job and place to live.

"My sister showed up and took him," Luther said. "She felt I wasn't being a good mom, that I was an unfit parent. ... Then I started using again." Her sister eventually won guardianship of the boy.

Luther skipped her probation appointments; a warrant was issued for her arrest. Soon after, police found her at her new boyfriend's home. The judge gave her a 12-month sentence.

"I messed up," Luther said.

Gender Differences Behind Bars

In the tightly controlled world of prison life, gender differences are especially pronounced.

"Men are more concrete and factual, and women are more relationship oriented," said Ana Boatwright, Taycheedah's warden since 2004, who was promoted last summer to oversee the reorganized female system. "Women come in with issues of victimization and they probably have been abused. They are fairly upfront about their offenses."

In general, men learn the rules and keep their mouths shut. Women, meanwhile, question them and talk back. When men don't like prison conditions, they riot. Women complain.

During the 1990s, research began revealing the differences between male and female inmates. Statistics and studies documented not only the crimes women commit, but also the different physical and psychological needs women bring to prison.

"Women's pathways into the criminal justice system are largely addiction and trying to survive from poverty and abuse," said Covington, who is also a co-author of the 2003 report "Gender-Responsive Strategies: Research, Practice, and Guiding Principles for Women Offenders."

The report, commissioned by the National Institute of Corrections, has served as a roadmap for many prison systems around the country as they make reforms to deal with women's needs. Wisconsin is using it, too.

"This is what we will be using to review and revise all of our procedures, programs and services -- everything we do," Boatwright said.

The report confirms what Boatwright says she's seen in her 20-year career in corrections.

Most female offenders are poor, undereducated and unskilled, and disproportionately women of color.

An estimated 80 percent of female offenders enter prison with substance abuse issues, the report found. Physical and sexual abuse are rampant in their histories -- about 40 percent report having been abused, compared to 9 percent of men. And a quarter of them suffer from mental illness, most commonly depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Taycheedah has the highest ratio of mentally ill offenders of all the state's 19 adult correctional institutions. About half of its inmates arrive on prescription medication for psychological disorders.

Female inmates also have more health care needs and associated costs than men. (Wisconsin spends an average of $27,000 a year per adult inmate.) They need pap smears, mammograms and, in the case of the pregnant prisoner, prenatal, obstetrical and postpartum care. They also have higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection.

The state plans to do a better job addressing all of these needs, Frank said.

"Typically, women prisoners suffer from a poor health history, drug abuse, a history of sexual and/or physical abuse and mental illness," he said. "We are employing assessment and evaluation tools that are specific to women."

What About The Children

Of all the issues that women bring to prison, one of the most difficult is their extreme worry about their children, advocates and criminologists say. And their longing to be with them.

More than half of the children of female prisoners will never visit their mothers while they are incarcerated, studies show.

"Most prisons are located in rural areas, so you have the cost and time involved for family members coming to these rural areas," said Covington said.

Caregivers, also, may be unable or unwilling to bring the children for visits.

Visits themselves present their own challenges. The prison setting can be scary for children, while the routine strip searches can be traumatizing for an inmate.

"A lot of these women have been physically and sexually abused, and when you leave the visiting room you often have to have a body cavity search, Covington say. "Some women say, 'I can't do this anymore.'"

At Taycheedah, inmates are allowed up to four visits per week, with only one visit per weekend, lasting up to three hours on weekdays and up to two hours per weekend and holiday. The meetings take place in a large, gymnasium-sized hall filled with chairs, coffee tables and a carpeted area with toys and books for children. The state does not allow conjugal visits.

A privileged few -- those mothers who have completed Taycheedah's parenting program and have good prison records -- get to have daylong visits with their kids at Doty House, a historical home in the center of Taycheedah's campus. The state hopes to expand this extended visiting program to its three other minimum-security prisons for women.

Luther didn't get to have either type of visit. Her sister refused to bring her son, she said.

"I think about him every day," she said. "He must have at least 50 to 80 cards from me."

Luther gave birth to her second boy Sept. 6, one of 20 babies born to Taycheedah inmates last year. She named him Rhylee. After the 18 hours she had with him in the hospital, she didn't get to see him again. Luther's boyfriend wasn't allowed on her visiting list, and no one else was willing to bring the baby, she said.

Her depression only worsened, she said.

Shortly after Rhylee's birth, Luther was transferred from Taycheedah to the John C. Burke Correctional Center in Waupun, one of the state's three minimum-security prisons for women.

As she counted down the months, the number of pictures of Rhylee and Jayden, sent by her dad and her boyfriend, grew. She posted them on the bulletin board in the small cell she shared with another inmate.

"I'm scared," she said, in advance of her release two weeks ago. "I have to take on all this responsibility after laying around doing nothing."

Another Chance At Motherhood

Just as they had talked about for months, Luther's boyfriend arrived on that Tuesday morning at Burke. After stopping for an appointment with her probation officer, the couple drove to Wild Rose, where she will live with her boyfriend, his parents and Rhylee, now 4 months old.

"I hugged and kissed him all over," said Luther, of her reunion with Rhylee. "He's a big baby and very spoiled."

She and her boyfriend plan to marry, she said. He has a good job in construction and recently purchased a house for them that he's remodeling, she said.

Luther will remain under state supervision for a year. She will have to check in with her probation officer twice a month and participate in an outpatient drug-treatment program. She also said she will look for a job.

It all feels overwhelming to her.

"Sometimes, I just have to get away and sit in my room," she said.

But mostly, she just wants to bond with her two children and regain custody of Jayden.

As hard as prison is, being released also can be terrifying for women, said Debbie Lassiter, of the Convergence Resource Center, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit agency that opened in 2004 to help female inmates transition into society upon their release.

"When they were ready to get out, they started coming up to us saying, 'I'm getting released in 30 days and I'm scared to death,'" said Lassiter, who spent years as a prison volunteer, teaching Bible study to female inmates. "Women were crying out saying there were no services to help them."

So she and a handful of other volunteers on a shoestring budget help women develop jobs skills, find housing and home furnishings, get substance abuse treatment and reunite with their children, among other services.

"If a man gets released from prison, you are dealing with a man," Lassiter said. "When a women gets released from prison, you are dealing with the woman, her children and the family related to her."

The state, too, is acknowledging the need for these "wrap-around" services. It plans to expand its parenting and education programs for women inmates. Last fall, it launched the female re-entry program, a pilot project that -- like the Convergence Resource Center -- helps women being released from prison. The program is collaboration between corrections, the state's Workforce Development and the Department of Family and Health Services.

The budget implications of the state's changes are unclear for now, Frank said. Many things may not cost more money, but will amount to doing things differently, Frank said. But the long-term goal is to save money and lives.

"The idea with Kids First," Franks said, "is let's invest money early on and work on prevention and early intervention so these kids won't grow up to be involved in the criminal justice system.

"That's money well spent."

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