LIVE OAK, Calif. " Nine months after her belly began to swell, Martha Sierra arrived at that moment of deliverance every pregnant woman craves and fears.
But as she writhed in pain at a Riverside hospital, laboring to push her baby into the world, Sierra faced a challenge not covered in the childbirth books: Her wrists were shackled to the bed.
Unable to roll onto her side or even sit straight up, Sierra managed as best she could. The reward was fleeting. Denied the new mom's customary cuddle, she watched as her daughter, hollering and flapping her arms, was taken from the room.
Sierra, 28, is an inmate at a California state prison north of Sacramento. She has trouble speaking of the birth, ashamed that her mistakes meant her child was born to an incarcerated mother. She also remains distressed and puzzled by her treatment: "Did they think I was going to get up and run away?"
Criminologists say Sierra's experience symbolizes a disturbing truth about correctional systems in California and beyond. With males vastly outnumbering females behind bars, prisons are typically designed and managed for violent men.
As a result, women prisoners, most of them serving less than two years for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, are thrust into a one-size-fits-all world. Inside, they are governed by rules and practices that ignore their distinctive pathways into crime and do little to help them mend their tattered lives.
That may be starting to change. In a national movement gathering steam in California, growing numbers of scholars, activists, wardens and lawmakers are pushing to reshape prisons to reflect differences between the sexes.
At a minimum, advocates want more female guards, to protect women's privacy and dignity; more food for pregnant inmates; easier access to sanitary products; and regulations for visits that enhance, rather than discourage, the preservation of close family ties.
More ambitiously, some criminologists envision shifting most women out of the remote maximum-security penitentiaries typical in California and some other states. Instead, they say, many female convicts would do better " and save taxpayers money " in neighborhood centers laden with rehabilitative services, from job training to drug treatment.
The female population in the nation's state and federal prisons is at an all-time high " about 103,000 " and the rate of incarceration is growing at nearly twice that of men, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. In the last 10 years alone, the number of women behind bars jumped 51%.
The increase does not reflect a rise in crimes committed by women. Rather, longer sentences " especially for drug offenses and repeat felons " and restrictions on the ability of inmates to get out earlier with good behavior are largely responsible. Women also are far more likely today to go to prison for public order violations, including prostitution, driving under the influence and begging.
"Women are typically arrested for survival crimes: dealing drugs, selling sex for drugs, bad checks, welfare fraud, credit card abuse," said Phyllis Modley, program manager for the National Institute of Corrections in Washington. "They do not commit the predatory crimes that men do at nearly the same rate. Yet they are sent to a correctional system that doesn't distinguish."
During the 1990s, new research created a more detailed picture of how female convicts differed from males, Modley said. Now, corrections officials in states as politically dissimilar as Indiana, Missouri and Minnesota are concluding that "gender matters," according to Barbara Owen, a prison sociologist at Cal State Fresno.
"No state does everything well" in managing female inmates, said Owen, recently hired as an advisor to the California Department of Corrections. But isolated programs show results, she said.
Indiana's main women's prison ensures that convicts stay heavily involved in their children's lives, for instance, while Missouri emphasizes inmates' transition to parole. Minnesota offers a rich array of alternatives to traditional prison, close to women's homes.
Katrina Bishop, a fair-skinned, ponytailed mother of two from Salinas, embodies California's typical female offender.
Raised by an alcoholic mother and a stepfather addicted to methamphetamine, she was kicked out of high school at 15, she said. Disowned by her mother and molested by a ranch hand where she lived, she took shelter in garages, cars, on the streets. Told she would never amount to anything, Bishop said, she set about fulfilling that prediction, engaging in continual "self-sabotage."
At 19, she had her first child, who landed in foster care because Bishop was "too strung out on drugs and had no money for food and diapers." A few years later, Bishop wound up in the hands of the Corrections Department, arrested for possession of methamphetamine and for cashing phony payroll checks she created on a computer. Her trip to state prison followed three county jail terms for writing fictitious checks.
By August 2004, Bishop had a second daughter in foster care and was in trouble again. She was caught with stolen checks and also convicted of violating parole by leaving her county without permission.
"I relapsed after doing a [drug treatment] program and got sucked right back into the old lifestyle," she said.
Bishop went to Valley State Prison for Women in the San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla. There, she shared an eight-woman cell with convicted murderers imprisoned for life with no possibility of parole, a blend of roommates not typical in men's prisons.
"You're mixed in with lifers who have no concern in the world," said Bishop, 28. "They're trying to fight, trying to run the room. They threaten you."
The California Legislative Women's Caucus has made incarcerated women its top priority this year. In an unusual April fact-finding mission, four lawmakers visited Valley State, and two of them spent the night.
They went through processing as inmates do, minus the strip search, receiving bedrolls and cell assignments. They ate in the dining hall, slept on the thin mattresses and asked women about their problems and personal stories.
Some complaints mirrored those in men's prison: Many inmates said they were hungry all the time and could not land spots in academic or job-training classes. What differed were complaints about medical care and concerns about children.
Measured on a per-inmate basis, the Corrections Department spends 60% more on healthcare for women than for men. Reproductive issues are cited as one reason, but women also arrive in prison with a greater incidence of HIV and AIDS and have more mental health needs. Some inmates told the legislators that they had not had a mammogram or Pap smear in years.
More disturbing, the lawmakers said, were the inmates' deep worries about their children. Two-thirds of women behind bars in California have children younger than 18, half of whom never visit because of the distance. Telephone contact is possible through collect calls, but most prisoners' families cannot afford it.
Carla Fortier, 43, has three sons who live with relatives in Los Angeles. Two of them were born behind bars.
"I've missed all the graduations, the first words, the first steps, all of that special stuff," said Fortier, whose inability to shake a crack addiction has made her an off-and-on resident of state prisons for the last 19 years. "Once, my youngest called me Mom. But when I went to prison and came home again, he was back to calling me Carla."
The legislators who visited Valley State returned to Sacramento with one overriding conclusion.
"The model for women in prison in California is wrongheaded," said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who was joined on the sleepover by Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge). "Most of the inmates we spoke to were in for DUIs and drug offenses. Why are we spending billions upon billions to house these people in such a high-security environment?"
Leaders in California's corrections hierarchy have begun to ask themselves similar questions. In February, they formed a commission of wardens, community activists, researchers and others to redesign prison rules, programs and practices to reflect gender differences.
The state has also hired as advisors two nationally known researchers " Owen and Barbara Bloom, a Sonoma State professor " who are experts on female offenders. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reorganization of California corrections, which is to take effect July 1 and is to focus on inmate rehabilitation, includes a first-ever deputy director for women's programs.
Officials say most of the changes behind prison walls should not cost money. They are trumpeting one victory already. After years of protest from female inmates and their families, male guards may no longer conduct pat searches of women.
Dawn Davison, who runs one of the four California lockups housing women, called that a key achievement. Because more than half of female inmates have been physically or sexually abused, she said, they were traumatized anew when pat-searched by men. But the new policy, she added, is only a start.
"For years people apparently felt that an inmate was an inmate was an inmate," said Davison, warden at the California Institution for Women in Chino. "What makes us think that when a woman comes to prison and becomes an inmate, she becomes the same as a man?"
Women are less violent than men, not only in the crimes they commit but also in their behavior behind bars.
Statistics from 2004 show that 29% of California's female prisoners were serving sentences for crimes against people. For men, the figure was 52%.
As for their conduct once imprisoned, officials could find no record of a female prisoner in California killing another. By contrast, 14 male prisoners were killed by fellow convicts last year.
And although assaults and even small-scale riots are common in men's prisons, fights among women are usually "nothing more than a lovers' quarrel and a little slapping around," Davison said. Attacks on staff by women, she added, rarely go beyond a kick delivered by an inmate resisting an order.
Yet the state's two biggest lockups for women " Valley State and the Central California Women's Facility, also in Chowchilla, with a combined population of 6,700 " operate under rules like those at prisons housing Charles Manson and other notoriously violent males.
Leaders of the union representing prison guards are wary of a rose-colored view of female offenders. Although they support safer penitentiaries that better prepare all inmates for their return to society, union officials say many women who end up in state prison have run afoul of the law numerous times before.
"They may be nonviolent offenders, but a lot of them have five felony convictions before they ever see any prison time," said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. "Sometimes the clanging of the door is the wake-up call that's needed to push an individual to do something positive in their lives."
Others question the fairness of handling female convicts differently from men. The criminal justice arena has long been dominated by the concept of equality, with the same treatment owed to all. But criminologists say equal should not necessarily mean identical. There are reasons, they say, why female offenders deserve unique consideration.
Topping that list is their role as mothers. In California, more than half the female prisoners are single parents, and their family obligations create challenges less prevalent among men, particularly as they make the transition from cell to street. Although all parolees struggle to find work and avoid doing the things that sent them to prison, it falls to women in particular to simultaneously reconnect with children, line up child care and cope with other family needs.
Those convicted of drug crimes " about one in three female offenders " are barred by federal rules from receiving most welfare benefits and, in many cases, do not qualify for public housing.
Some activists believe that California's tendency to manage all inmates as a homogenous group is reflected most strikingly in the treatment of pregnant women.
Since 2001, more than 1,100 state inmates have delivered babies. Most arrive pregnant, but a small number conceive during overnight family visits on prison grounds.
Typically, incarcerated women give birth in a locked community hospital ward guarded by several correctional officers. Despite such security, department regulations require the use of wrist or ankle restraints during labor. Although the restraints are not specified during delivery, Davison, the warden at the Chino prison, acknowledged that reality did not always match the printed rules.
"There is no woman in the throes of labor who is going to jump up and try to escape," she said. Her goal: to ensure that no California inmate is shackled during labor or childbirth.
Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) wants to accomplish the same thing and has introduced a bill she hopes will do so. The legislation won approval in the Assembly last month and awaits action in the Senate.
The Times recently interviewed inmate mothers at the Leo Chesney Center in Live Oak, between Sacramento and Chico. The private prison houses minimum-security convicts under contract with the state. The women, all of whom gave birth while imprisoned at the state's larger lockups in Chino or Chowchilla, called delivering babies behind bars an experience they had tried to forget.
Some, like Sierra, who went through it, start to finish, with one or both hands strapped to the bed. Others were cuffed by a wrist or ankle throughout labor but had the restraints removed at the moment of the birth.
After delivery, a few women qualified for one of 70 spots in a community-based program that allows mothers and children to live together. But most had to surrender their babies within a day or two to relatives or foster care. Then the women were shipped back to prison.
Jessica Foster is waiting and hoping to occupy one of those coveted 70 spots.
Foster, 22, went to prison after cashing a stolen check. Initially, she had been placed on probation. But after three violations " for being drunk at a nightclub, failing to turn in a probation report and possessing a marijuana pipe " she was sent to Valley State.
Arriving 7 1/2 months pregnant, she worried constantly about her baby's health. She said she received iron pills and prenatal check-ups but always left the chow hall "starving." The servings, she said, were too meager for someone eating for two.
Most upsetting, Foster recalled, was "the total lack of privacy from men," who make up 75% of the correctional officers at Valley State.
Male guards were able to look down on women in the showers from a control room, she said, and mingled near the inmate reception area while female officers conducted strip searches, in which hand mirrors are used to search incoming inmates' private parts for contraband. That was most humiliating, she said, for women who were menstruating.
"It's all run by men. The doctors, the officers. There are men everywhere," said Foster, of Redding. "You just feel violated all the time."
In January, she gave birth at Madera Community Hospital. She was not handcuffed during her labor or delivery. But she said a male officer was in the room, just on the other side of a curtain, the entire time.
Afterward, with an ankle fastened to the bed, she was allowed to spend a few days in the hospital bonding with her daughter, Olivia. Then it was back to the cellblock, where the pain of separation was enhanced by pain from breasts engorged with milk.
Women in prison
A growing number of critics say female inmates, most of them incarcerated for drug and property crimes, are ill-served by a prison system designed for violent men. The California Department of Corrections plans to change some regulations and practices to reflect differences between the sexes.
Inmate facts; California prison population:
Sources: California Department of Corrections, Little Hoover Commission
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