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Getting back on track: A visit to the San Mateo County women's jail

Published on 2/18/2011

REDWOOD CITY -- Krista Fortenberry will be released from the county jail in about two weeks, and she is terrified her felony theft conviction will make it impossible to find a job.

But the 22-year-old Burlingame resident hopes the programs she took advantage of while locked up in San Mateo County's jail for women will help convince potential employers that she's not just a convict.

"They're going to judge me a totally different way," she said Thursday.

Fortenberry spoke to reporters as part of a media tour of the women's facility on Maple Street put on by county officials in advance of a local summit on women's criminal justice issues slated for next month.

It was also an opportunity for Sheriff Greg Munks and Supervisor Adrienne Tissier to stump for a proposed new jail that would include expanded space for women and will cost as much as $155 million.

"It's overcrowded, it's outdated," said Munks of the current jail.

A sheriff's deputy who led the tour pointed out the cramped and out-of-date conditions of the facility that held 124 women on Thursday. Deputy Jessica Caballero walked reporters through a day room that serves as cafeteria, classroom, library and work space for workers folding laundry.

"It gets very busy," she said.

Improving conditions at the jail was the subject of the county's first summit on women's jail issues, which was held in 2007. Tissier said the purpose of the March 4 gathering, which will include law enforcement and nonprofit agencies, is to highlight what the county has done to make things better.

Debra Keller, who manages the programming at the jail, said the focus since 2007 has been to tailor education and release programs to the specific needs of women prisoners. Women often end up in jail as a result of drugs or property crimes like theft, which are usually nonviolent offenses.

Keller said 14 percent of men in custody have mental problems, whereas 29 percent of women do. Also, women inmates are often the sole caretakers of their children, so incarceration can mean grandparents have to bring the kids for visits.

One of the things jail officials have used to try to help inmates is a program called "Hope Inside," and a group of 11 inmates gathered around a table wearing pink jail shirts and sweatshirts as part of the program on Thursday.

Ruby Cvetan-Ross, a licensed marriage and family therapist, led the group through an exercise on responsibility and explained to reporters that the program tries to change the inmates' behavior. Addiction is a big concern.

"Getting addicted to the drama and the chaos of the streets, we're addressing that," she said.

Fortenberry was part of the group but broke away -- along with two others made available by authorities -- to tell reporters how much they liked the program. By taking classes offered in the jail, she has gotten a GED and has even earned a credit toward a degree at College of San Mateo.

She said she hopes these tools would keep her out of situations where she might make bad choices. "You really have to change your life if you don't want to end up back in here," she said.

The Women's Criminal Justice Summit is open to the public and slated to run from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Oracle Convention Center at 350 Oracle Parkway in Redwood City. For more information, call 650-363-4572. To RSVP, go to

By the numbers:
Women in prison
Women in jail who have a substance-abuse problem
Women in jail who have mental health problems
Inmates in San Mateo County who are women
Source: San Mateo County Sheriff's Office

The Women's Criminal Justice Summit is open to the public. It will take place from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 4 at the Oracle Convention Center at 350 Oracle Parkway in Redwood City. For more information, call 650-363-4572. To RSVP, go to