Plan Puts Female Inmates in Centers by Their Families

Times Staff Writer

Radically reshaping their approach to women prisoners, Schwarzenegger administration officials plan to move 40% of the state’s female inmates out of their cells and into neighborhood correctional centers.

Most would probably be housed in Los Angeles County, which sends more women to prison than any other county.

The inmates -- about 4,500 to start -- would be able to live closer to their families and receive education, job training, drug and alcohol counseling, and other help that few now get in California’s severely overcrowded penitentiaries.


All of the new centers would be secure facilities run by private companies under contract to the state. Only inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as drug or property offenses, would be eligible. Some prisoners would be allowed to have their children live with them.

The plan, most of which requires legislative approval, reflects a growing consensus among experts nationally that female inmates are ill served by a one-size-fits-all correctional system designed for violent men. If adopted, the initiative would make California a leader among states remaking prison systems to reflect differences between the sexes.

The proposal also offers the state a way to ease the severe overcrowding plaguing the $8.1-billion correctional system.

With the total inmate population at an all-time high of 168,000 -- enough to fill Dodger Stadium nearly three times -- tensions on cellblocks are rising and wardens are wedging convicts into gyms, TV lounges, even hallways. Almost every prison is packed to twice its intended capacity.

The crowding, coupled with a severe vacancy rate in the correctional officer ranks, requires some guards to work as many as six double shifts each month.

By moving 4,500 women into community beds, officials could free up an entire prison for the overflow of male inmates, providing temporary relief while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushes his proposal to build two new lockups with bond money.


The plan for female convicts is buried in the state budget the governor proposed last month and has not been widely discussed in public. Officials acknowledge that shifting prisoners into community beds may alarm some neighborhood residents.

Resistance also is likely from the powerful guards union, which wields considerable influence in the Legislature and has long been bitterly opposed to the privatization of prisons.

Others are optimistic, arguing that public wariness will diminish once the profile of the inmates -- mostly mothers whose crimes make them a relatively low security risk -- becomes known. The large majority of female prisoners -- about 66% -- are serving time for nonviolent crimes, with an average stay in state custody of 13 months.

“We need to tell our communities who these women are and remind everyone that these offenders are coming home to their neighborhoods sooner or later,” Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman said recently.

Several lawmakers have pledged to back the proposal.

“The overwhelming majority of women in prison are in for low-level crimes that do not require the sort of expensive, high-security setting we’re providing them,” said Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View).

“We know there will be people who say this sort of move is soft on crime,” said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). “But it’s really about being smart on crime.”


Like other states, California has seen a steady increase in its female inmate population and now houses 11,400 women -- almost twice the number in 1990. Most, about 6,700, are in two high-security prisons in the remote San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla, far from the big cities where they live and their children await their return.

An additional 2,200 are at the California Institution for Women in Chino and the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. The rest live in three camps (two in San Diego County, one in Malibu); a private prison in Live Oak, north of Sacramento; and in small programs for new mothers and the drug-addicted that are scattered around the state.

A year ago, the Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog panel appointed by the governor and Legislature, published a report calling California’s strategy for female offenders a failure. Among other problems, California remained largely wedded to a policy of punishment and incapacitation designed for violent men, the report said.

As a result, half of these women eventually return to state prison, mostly for nonviolent offenses. The social and economic costs of that statistic, according to the report, includes lasting damage to California’s young generation, because two out of three female inmates have at least one minor child.

In response, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation launched plans to remake its prisons to better address women’s needs. It hired two prominent experts on female convicts as advisors and invited scholars, legislators, ex-felons and others to join a commission to suggest improvements.

In the last year, the department has ended the practice of allowing male guards to pat down female inmates, halted the shackling of prisoners during labor and childbirth, improved nutrition for pregnant women and increased access to sanitary products -- a top complaint in the past.


Officials now are considering allowing relatives or friends to be in delivery rooms when inmates have babies and are retooling visitation practices to enhance bonding between incarcerated mothers and their children.

At the Chino women’s prison, Warden Dawn Davison is finalizing plans for a 20-cell wing that will allow inmates who deliver babies to be housed with their newborns for up to 18 months and then moved into special community housing upon parole. With the help of HomeAid Inland Empire, the charitable arm of a builders association, prison officials are remodeling an old, unused cellblock and hope to house the first new mothers there this fall.

“The goal is to keep these mothers and babies together so that they build a strong relationship from the start and, hopefully, avoid problems down the line,” Davison said.

Under current rules, the six babies born to California inmates in an average week spend a day or two in the hospital with their mothers before being picked up by relatives or placed in the government’s child protective system.

Although the prison nursery is a pioneering step, the most dramatic change is the proposed transfer to community beds. Officials said the typical inmate qualifying for neighborhood placement would be serving a sentence of less than a year for a crime such as forgery, burglary, auto theft, drug possession or sale, or driving under the influence.

The plan has three phases, beginning this year with the shift of 500 women into privately run drug treatment programs. That move does not require legislative approval and could happen by summer, officials said.


Later in the year, officials hope to begin accepting bids from firms interested in housing the additional 4,000 or so women who qualify for a community slot.

The centers would range in size from 75 to 200 inmates. Some would be dormitory-style; others would permit children and have bedrooms surrounding a common living area. Treatment methods would vary according to provider and a center’s population.

All would be locked facilities with peace officers on staff, officials said. The level of security would vary according to the facility’s population. Locations of the centers would depend on permits.

An overriding goal of the policy change is to keep inmates more closely connected to their families, a link known to decrease the odds that an offender will commit crimes again. Because more than 30% of all convicts are from Los Angeles County, a large proportion of the correctional centers would be there. San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties have the next-largest percentages.

Although the expense of housing women in neighborhoods would be lower than prison costs, the expanded services they receive would initially consume any savings. But Wendy Still, who occupies the newly created job of deputy director for women’s programs, said the new approach would yield long-term financial benefits by reducing the number of parolees who wind up back behind bars.

Those supporting the new strategy agreed.

“This is groundbreaking reform, and it has been a long time coming,” said lobbyist Mark Nobili of Cornell Cos. Inc., which operates the minimum-security private prison at Live Oak. “In the past, these women have been warehoused and we’ve guaranteed their failure. Now, they may finally receive programs that might guarantee their success.”