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Women and Prison | The Nation

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Women and Prison

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Thirteen-year-old Idalmin Santana has a ready smile and long braids. She lives with a foster family in Jamaica, Queens, because her parents are in prison. "My father used to sell drugs, and my mother didn't rat on him," she explains.

About the Author

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a contributing writer for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section.

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Idalmin is a member of the Incarcerated Mothers Program, a group that enables her to connect with children in similar circumstances. "We do a lot of workshops to express our feelings. Like, we say one good thing and one bad thing that happened to us." I ask her to tell me one good thing and one bad thing that has happened to her. "One good thing is going to that program," she tells me. "One bad thing is my mother being incarcerated."

On March 9 Idalmin traveled to Albany as one of more than 200 lobbyists-for-a-day, who sleepily boarded buses at 6:30 AM for the Tenth Annual Coalition for Women Prisoners Advocacy Day. The coalition--a hodgepodge of former convicts, human rights organizations and assorted family members and supporters--came to the state capital to protest what they see as New York's over-reliance on incarceration as a response to poverty, abuse and addiction. In meetings with over a hundred legislators, coalition members highlighted the problems facing incarcerated women, the fastest-growing segment of the US prison population.

Although male convicts will probably always outnumber women by a large margin, the rate of growth for women in prison is staggering. From 1977 to 2003, New York State's female prison population increased by approximately 500 percent--about twice the rate of males--overwhelmingly as a result of the "war on drugs."

Vivian Nixon contributed to this statistic, and is now fighting to change it. Released from prison in 2001, Nixon is the lead organizer of the College and Community Fellowship, as well as this year's recipient of the coalition's Lifting as We Climb award, conferred to a formerly incarcerated woman who now advocates for prison reform. In her acceptance speech at the lobby day's opening ceremony, she lamented a system in which "every sentence ultimately becomes a life sentence because of the collateral consequences."

These consequences include, in many states, disenfranchisement for life, bans on public housing and bars against receiving government financial aid for education. A little-debated provision in the 1996 welfare reform law mandates a lifetime ban on welfare and food stamps for drug offenders, although New York is one of eight states that have opted out of the ban.

Who are these female convicts? Outside of Quentin Tarantino films, women who set out to go on bloody rampages are exceedingly rare. The far more typical female inmate is an addict who starts using drugs to deal with the trauma of childhood abuse and turns a few tricks to support her habit. Or the pawn who unwittingly gets caught serving as a "mule" in a drug deal. Or the abused partner who fires the household gun in desperation in a final fight. Indeed, female convicts across the board report alarming rates of abuse: in 1999, the federal government found that close to sixty percent of all women in state prisons nationwide suffered abusive histories.

These women do not generally pose a threat to society; insofar as they do, counseling and treatment often prevent future offenses more effectively--and cheaply--than incarceration. "Most women who commit minor crimes are perfect for diversion to alternatives to incarceration, such as treatment programs and counseling," says Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Correctional Association of New York's Women in Prison Project, which organized the lobby day. A 1994 RAND study is one of many that point to the relative cost-effectiveness of treatment: It found that every dollar invested in substance-abuse treatment saves taxpayers $7.46 in societal costs.

"Locking women up also has an especially deleterious effect on society," Kraft-Stolar says, "since about 75 percent of women inmates are mothers and their children's primary caregivers." This results in children being shuffled around to relatives or put into the foster care system, which wreaks havoc on a child's development, not to mention the additional taxpayer costs incurred. What's more, since most New York State inmates come from New York City, and most prisons are upstate, even visiting is a daunting and expensive prospect.

The activists in Albany advocated passage of several pending bills. One, sponsored by State Senator Olga Mendez, would allow early parole for women convicted of crimes against their abusers. Mendez, who met survivors of abuse through her work with a domestic violence program, says, "Many of them ended up in prison because they were abused horrendously." She came away with the conviction that "this person who has been abused shouldn't be punished twice." The bill would allow such women, who have a practically nonexistent rate of recidivism, to become eligible for release on parole after completing one-third of their term. Reformers are also seeking the repeal of the infamous Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate draconian prison terms for the possession of small amounts of drugs.

The lobby day drew more than double the participants it had last year. As Kraft-Stolar puts it, "People are increasingly organized, increasingly educated and increasingly mobilized on prison issues." At the end of the day, Idalmin Santana summarized her experience. "I think they paid attention to us," Idalmin said. "We even started crying," her sister added. Whether that attention and those tears will translate into law--and possible reunification with their mother--is now in the hands of the legislators.

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