By Judy Patrick, President and CEO
Women’s Foundation of California
Photos by Jean Karotkin
On May 18th the Race, Gender and Human Rights Donor Circle of the Women’s Foundation of California, the Women Donors Network and leaders of criminal justice organizations spent a day at Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the United States (over 4000 women are currently incarcerated in this prison, which was built to house 2000). Judy Patrick met and talked with women who spend their days trying to “do their time, and not let their time do them.”
In 1994, California passed a three-strikes law that requires sentencing of 25 years to life for people convicted of a third felony strike. This “strike” could be anything. I met one woman whose third strike was stealing baby formula for her child.
The cost of the three-strikes law – both in terms of lives wasted and cost to California’s taxpayers – is tremendous. The law has contributed to a quadrupling of the number of women in prison.
Today over 11,000 women spend their days in state prisons at the cost to the State of $52,000 per person a year. Chowchilla alone costs the state $208 million a year.
Two-thirds of these women are convicted of non-violent crimes, most of them related to drug addiction. Two-thirds of the women in prison are also back in prison for some minor parole violation.
So, enough of the statistics. What is the rest of the story that is reflected in these pictures? The story is both maddening and heartening.
It is maddening that most of the women in prison are poor, that 80% have been victims of violence. There is almost nothing in prison that helps these women prepare themselves to return to being productive members of a community (no GED classes, no parenting classes, etc.). Women who have prison jobs are paid pennies per hour, while anything they purchase from the prison store is horrendously overpriced and of poor quality. Female prisoners are often victims of sexual abuse and rape and often don’t have access to adequate medical care. Furthermore, women who have been convicted of a felony are not eligible for welfare, often don’t have marketable job skills and, when they do apply for a job, are required to check a box that says they have been convicted of a felony. It is unclear to me how a woman just released from prison is supposed to feed her children.
Most of all I, am angered by the waste of good human beings. If just a fraction of the cost for incarceration were invested in helping these women thrive through drug rehabilitation, job training, mental health services and parenting classes, we would strengthen the communities to which these women return.
I am heartened by the resilience of these women though, because despite the odds, they still believe that they can make their lives right, be good mothers to their children, take care of their parents, and hold a job that allows them to support themselves and their families. I was moved by how deeply they care about each other and strive to help each other do their time.
So, how can we help? We can begin to build the political will to repeal three strikes for nonviolent crimes. We can work NOW to pass SB 1266, a bill introduced by Senator Carol Liu, which would move as many of 4000 mothers convicted of nonviolent, non-serious and non-sexual crimes back to their homes and into treatment programs and employment education. Read the bill and encourage your elected officials to vote for this bill.