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DSA In the News

Summit focuses on female inmates

Published on 3/5/2011

Women are different.

They may commit the same crimes as men but, when it comes to incarceration, women need programs aimed at their gender-specific needs like abuse, child care and education.

That was the message delivered Friday by a cross section of law enforcement and social service experts who converged at a criminal justice summit focused on women’s needs and care.

The summit, held at Oracle Headquarters in Redwood City, was a report back from a similar gathering in 2004, when officials first tackled the gender-specific needs of female inmates. The general consensus is that existing programs work — and that there is a demand for more. The goal to provide female-centered programs is now dovetailing the push for a new jail which Sheriff Greg Munks and other supporters say will relieve overcrowding of both sexes and also allow space for rehabilitative and education services.

The new jail in Redwood City, for example will include specific areas for family reunification, classrooms and an 88-bed transitional area to hold 64 men and 24 women. At Munks’ request, the jail planning unit is also looking at the idea of accommodating new mothers and their babies overnight, said Sheriff’s Lt. Debi Bazan who heads the unit.

The new jail will be a long way from bars and wire and, when finished, will draw attention for being “like no other,” Bazan said. 

Yet, the challenge of overcrowding and recidivism isn’t going to be solved with just a new facility, panelists said.

“We can’t build our way out of this problem,” said Supervisor Adrienne Tissier.

At Friday’s gathering, dozens of attendees got a peek at how the programs inside and outside jail walls operate and the results, such as a sharp decline in repeat offenders or “frequent fliers.”

Within a year of opening the Women’s Transitional Facility — a small portion of the women’s jail set aside for women focusing on programs, work furlough and getting back to the community — the recidivism rate dropped by 50 percent, said Deborah Keller, who heads up jail programming.

Summit attendees also learned why criminal justice experts say women’s jails and programs can’t just use the same template as those for male inmates.

A recent survey of female inmates showed that 70 percent were not lawfully employed, 34 percent had no education, 24 percent had severe mental illness and 66 percent had children under 18.

The child aspect is of particular need for female inmates because they tend to be the caregivers. Their incarceration requires space for them to be with their children other than a cramped visiting booth, officials said.

The women, too, often respond to classes on cooking and parenting because they are for their family. They need services for abuse and trauma that are often different than the experiences of men.

When Lt. Lisa Williams came to the women’s jail, there were few options and outdated tools like computer equipment.

“Half of those women don’t know what a floppy disk is,” she said.

In the time since, the women have been exposed to yoga, literacy, culinary instruction and even the care of nine chickens that roost outside the transitional facility.

The goal is not just to punish, but to rehabilitate and readmit them to society.

The first task is determining if an individual is motivated and legally able to be modified into a treatment program, said Richard Hori of the Probation Department.

A multi-department approach must also be matched with individual assessments to “personalize” criminal justice, said Probation Department Chief Stu Forrest.

Gender-specific needs are actually further alone in the juvenile population because it is a smaller pool, Forrest said.

For example, the Camp Kemp Girls Camp is a gender-specific program that aims to identify issues at an earlier age and reunify wards with their family.

However, on Thursday, the Board of Supervisors learned the Probation Department wants to close the underutilized camp to save $2 million.

Alternative sentences are another option but Munks cautioned they must not be offered only to reduce the jail population.

“It has to be done under the right circumstances, for the right reason,” he said.