Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Parole for Women in California: Promise or Pathos

by Corey Weinstein, MD, CCHP

Women are not men, but the California Department of Corrections (CDoC) has treated them as such until very recently. They are housed in mega prisons, denied contact with their children and denied important gender appropriate needs.

The sexual abuse scandals in California women's prisons in the late 1990s and recent Federal legislation concerning the elimination of rape in prison forced CDoC to begin deal with the issue of the protection of women in prison and gender equity. Pressure by the community has pushed the prison managers further. During this past winter California Prison Focus, a community based human rights group in San Francisco, launched its Dignity for Women Prisoners Campaign. CPF won a stunning victory that promises the end to the abusive cross gender pat searches of women prisoners. By June 2005 rules and regulations were in place which prohibit male staff from routinely pat searching women, thus ending 50 years of routine formal sexual abuse of women prisoners by staff.
There are other signs that CDoC may be beginning to create other gender appropriate policies and procedures. But CDoC is a notorious swamp of inadequacy in which positive steps get mired in the muck of malaise and tainted by the stench of the past.

When thinking about how women prisoners do in California prisons it's important to understand the context of this State's detention camps. Consider these facts: CDoC is run by a good old boys network of insular do-nothings never having any top level hires from outside the system. Under orders from the central office in Sacramento staff at Folsom and Corcoran were directed to commit murder and mayhem on the high security exercise yards resulting in the death of seven prisoners and the injury of hundreds by guard gunfire. Not one individual has been identified or accepted responsibility for that decade of mayhem between 1985 and 1995. The guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) demonizes prisoners by labeling them as enemies" and peddles its influence as the State's biggest political contributor to get and keep as many people in prison as possible. The State's political discourse is largely limited to tough on crime appeals and messages parroting the narrow interest of the CCPOA.

In mid-May 2005 Governor Schwartzenegger signed into law a sweeping reorganization of prison administration. The name of the system is changing to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Only time will tell if this will assist real reform or be a change in name only that just moves the chess pieces around the same old board.
Given the overcrowding, boredom, lack of programs, yard violence and guard abuses it isn't surprising that imprisonment in California helps very few. Prisoners have little positive to do inside and routinely fail to complete their one to three year parole sentences upon release. 44% of women and 67% of men return to prison as parole violators, most on technical parole violations or petty drug offenses.

Women in Prison

For more than 25 years California has built prisons with two purposes in mind: punishment and incapacitation. Mega prisons have been built including the two largest prisons for women in the world. Just east of Chowchilla, CA the twin sisters, Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) and Central California Women's Facility each house 3,000 women. These mega prisons are designed for cost effective control and containment despite the relatively low security risk of women prisoners.

There are important differences between female and male prisoners. Women are more likely to be drug users and to need mental health care and medical treatment. 57% of women entering prison have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration, a rate four times that of men. 2/3 of the women have been convicted of property or drug related crimes. More have been victims of violent crimes than have been convicted of violence. 2/3 of the women are mothers of minor children and 60% were living with their kids when arrested most of them single moms. 40% were employed when arrested and 40% had incomes of less that $600 per month. Women felons are twice as likely to be very poor as their male counterparts and three times more likely to be caring for their minor children. They also tend to have shorter sentences.

Women prisoners have different needs in prison and on parole than men. In its report called Breaking the Barriers for Women on Parole California legislature's bipartisan Little Hoover Commission said that California runs a prison system with policies, practices, programs and facilities designed mostly for violent male prisoners and has remained focused, almost singularly, on a policy of punishment and incapacitation designed for male offenders." The report described that the CDoC had just overlooked the needs of the 22,000 women in prison and on parole.
While 70% of the women have a need for drug use rehabilitation services only 14% are in drug treatment in prison or while on parole. Only 33% of the imprisoned women are able to participate in any educational, vocational or employment training. Thousands more are eligible but there are no programs for them. Most jobs in prison are petty make-work jobs like porters, yard crew or menial tasks in the kitchen or laundry. None of which offer any hope for future employment. Drug treatment has been done on a punitive model and women are punished for any drug use by being removed from treatment and put in disciplinary housing.

CDoC has made no effort to keep families together. There are 140 community placement beds available for minimum custody female prisoners to live outside the prison walls with their children under the age of six. This Community Prison Mother Child Program has not been expanded one single bed in the last 20 years despite the number of women in prison increasing by 500%. Also CDoC provides no resources or programs for transporting children to the prison to visit their mothers even though the two mega prisons are located in rural California far from population centers.
For the 12,000 women on parole there have been 1,000 beds available for drug treatment as an alternative to re-incarceration for drug use or possession parole violations. 750 women can take a computerized literacy course and 300 get job placement skill training. All together, only 20% of women parolees are in any kind of program assisting them in any way. The rest just get the usual check in visits by their parole agent and nothing else.

One of the ways California has kept its prisons overfull is by sending prisoners back to prison for petty and technical violations of parole. As part of a successful lawsuit brought against the Board of Prison Terms a few years ago the Department agreed to change its parole policies and programs. The Valdivia case settlement agreement not only ordered attorney representation at parole violation hearings, but it mandated alternative sanctions with programs consisting of community drug treatment, halfway houses and electronic monitoring. Even though the programs were never fully funded or implemented there was a 4% reduction in recidivism in the first year of operation in 2004.

Enter the CCPOA and the victims' rights groups it organizes and financially supports. As the Governor's various reform programs have been shown to be ill conceived and useless his popularity has been slipping. The savvy CCPOA seized on the opportunity and dragged out its victim rights puppets to shriek that public safety was threatened by keeping parole violators on the streets. Neither the CCPOA nor the CDoC had any real data to argue the case either way, so politics and headlines ruled the day and the Governor cancelled the partially implemented reforms with a stroke of his pen. The court in Validivia later held this was illegal and violated the settlement terms and ordered the programs reinstated.

Dignity for Women Prisoners

California Prison Focus is working with Human Rights Watch Young Advocates of Northern California to improve the daily life of women prisoners through the Dignity for Women Prisoners Campaign. The Campaign will be monitoring institutional compliance to the new rules that limit cross gender pat searches of women. Regular visits to the two mega prisons in Chowchilla are used for monitoring and to find out from the women what kind of changes they want implemented. Campaign goals include everything from forcing the CDoC to pay for transportation of children to visit their moms and developing early release plans for many offenders to securing adequate feminine hygiene supplies for the women. The Campaign seeks to end the all too common verbal abuse by guards and the sexual assault on women prisoners by staff. Even access to more feminine dress, especially for visits is on the agenda, as now women must visit their loved ones wearing jeans and T shirts.

So far CDoC has agreed to end cross gender pat searches by 6/1/05 and has promised to remove male custodial staff from women's housing units during the third watch (night shift). That begins to satisfy the Campaign demand to institute Rule 53 of the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Rule 53 requires that no male staff member even hold a key to a women's prison door and not be assigned to guard duty in women's housing units.

The new female Director of CDoC, Jeanne Woodford has created a Gender Responsive Strategy Commission (GRSC). The Commission includes high level staff of the Department, community members and specialist consultants. The Dignity Campaign has a seat on the GRSC. It appears to be a serious attempt to identify and solve problems women face in prison and on parole. It is the GRSC that developed the new pat search rules in such a timely fashion, got hygiene supplies available and is beginning to institute Rule 53. The Commission will seriously look at gender specific drug treatment, education and programming. For example, the GRSC is developing a drug treatment model that includes help for trouble caused by the sexual and physical abuse endured by women. Deincarceration is of special interest with emphasis on community based facilities that reunite women with their minor children and addresses underlying issues such as poverty and drug use that lead to crime.

Certainly there are questions as to whether the GRSC will survive the recent organizational changes, the good old boys who desperately want to see the female Director of Corrections fail and the CCPOA who see the Commission's desire to depopulate the women's prisons as a threat to full employment and the move to gender specific custodial assignments as a threat to their seniority rights over post orders.

One positive sign is that the women's caucus of the legislature has taken a serious interest in the plight of women under custodial authority. In May 2005 some caucus members toured VSPW and slept overnight in the reception center. They were deeply moved and came away with new understandings of the issues. The caucus has expressed interest in doing regular visits and having face to face contact with the women. Senators Speier and Kuehl have authored bills creating independent oversight task forces.

CPF's Dignity Campaign will keep working to pressure the CDoC, encourage the politicians and blunt the regressive power of the CCPOA as the needs of women prisoners, their children and our communities are pushed forward.

[Dr. Weinstein is an expert on prison and jail medical health care issues and a board member of California Prison Focus.]

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login