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California’s Mother-Child Alternative Prison Centers Investigated

California's Mother-Child Alternative Prison Centers Investigated

by John E. Dannenberg

California has five alternative prison centers housing 140 women with their children as the mothers serve prison terms for non-violent crimes. Contracted out to Center Point, Inc. of San Rafael, CA, the five Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) centers have come under fire lately for inadequate healthcare. The complaints relate both to the children, who are not incarcerated, and to the mothers, who are.

In 2005, CDCR's medical care system was taken over by a federal receiver. (See: PLN, Mar. 2006, p.1.) When asked about healthcare complaints regarding the alternative mother-child centers, Receiver spokesperson Rachel Kagan doubted that the children were under their jurisdiction, since they were not incarcerated. While arguably legally correct, this response does not salve the unfolding human tragedy.

When women are incarcerated, 90% of their children typically move in with relatives, while 10% are placed in foster care. The separation of children from their mothers is often later traced as a causative factor in the children entering the criminal justice system. Thus, the alternative prison centers hold great social promise, in theory.

But the absence of healthcare for the prisoners' children was highlighted recently at a 40-bed San Diego facility where Marsha Strickland had complained to staff for six weeks about her 5-year-old daughter's blinding headaches and constant nausea, before the girl was permitted a hospital visit. Diagnosed with brain cancer, the daughter is now living with relatives.

Prisoner Sonya Bradford delivered a stillborn 7-month-old fetus. She had complained to staff that the fetus had stopped moving, but was not given medical attention. Staff denied responsibility because Bradford had only entered the center two days earlier.

When Dinesha Lawson complained to staff for several days that her infant daughter's breathing was labored, a Center Point counselor finally drove them to a hospital where the baby, with a heart rate of 32, was placed on a respirator. She was diagnosed with double pneumonia and treated with antibiotics.

As a result of the complaints, the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs is investigating the centers. Officials at Center Force declined interviews. But regardless of any faults that might be uncovered, the bottom line is that when society incarcerates a mother, it creates multiple victims. CDCR's progressive mother-child alternative incarceration program, when properly funded and managed, still appears to make the best of a bad situation.

Sources: New York Times, Marin Independent Journal.

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