Yesterday, officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation travelled to Chowchilla in the Central Valley to talk to locals about the pending conversion of Valley State Prison for Women into a men’s facility. Chowchilla, the closest town to two of the state’s three women’s prisons, has resisted the conversion, worried about the impact of bringing in thousands of male prisoners. CDCR, meanwhile, says that under realignment, the female prison population will drop so much that they won’t need all three women’s prisons. Joshua Emerson Smith covers Chowchilla as part of his job as a McClatchy Reporter with Merced Sun Star and Chowchilla News. Emerson Smith was at yesterday’s meeting and we checked in with him to find out what went down. You can also read his report on the meeting here.
Women in Prison
By Angola 3 News
Angola 3 News is an official project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website iswww.angola3news.com, where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. Additionally we are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more. Our articles and videos have been published by Alternet, Truthout, Counterpunch, Monthly Review, Z Magazine, Indymedia, and many others.
In the last 25 years, women have been the fastest growing prison population in the United States and in California. Between the ‘70s and the 2000s, the number of female inmates in state prisons serving a sentence of over a year has grown by 757%.
Between 1985 and 2007, the number of women in prison increased by nearly double the rate of men. At the height of California’s prison boom, in the late 1990s, Theresa Martinez was shipped to a brand new prison in Chowchilla. The two prisons in Chowchilla were built to house the ballooning population of women, incarcerated mostly for drug-related crimes. Martinez recalls:
As the population grew, they were bringing busloads and busloads of women and we were filling up the rooms. At first we started with four bunks. And then more bunks got put in there, that was six. And then eight. Which is past the fire laws. Which they don’t care about the fire laws, somehow they got past that too. And there’s eight in a room now. And basically you’re told when to eat. Each unit goes at a time to eat. You have to wait in line for canteen. You have to wait in line for medical. Don’t catch the flu and have to put in a co-pay, because you’ll have to wait two days anyway.
Martinez is one of 13 women featured in the new book, Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons. The book’s editors Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman joined KALW’s Holly Kernan for this interview.
Public officials in Chowchilla have filed a lawsuit to prevent either of the local women’s prisons from being converted to house male inmates as realignment begins. Currently, California has 9.300 women inmates, spread across three women’s prisons–two of which are in Chowchilla. Under realignment, non-violence, non-serious, non-sex offenders will become the domain of county jails, not state prisons. The majority of women in prison fall into this category and so the female prison population will likely be cut in half over the next couple of years, reducing the need for women’s prison beds.
The LA Times opines that the state’s recent decision to let mothers incarcerated for non-violent, non-serious crimes out of prison early is akin to having them “plead the belly.” Never heard the term? Apparently, under English common law (when the death penalty was still in effect), women could ask that their execution be stayed if and while they were pregnant–leading, allegedly, to women lying about being pregnant to avoid death. The state’s new policy, which is expected to extend to fathers as well, is no less bizarre, the Times writes:
Texas recently made the headlines for doing something it has never done since gaining statehood in 1845: it closed a prison. Now, it seems California could follow suit.
Here’s why. The governor’s realignment plan changes the criminal code so that non-violent, non-serious offenders (who also cannot be sex offenders) will no longer serve their sentences in state prison. Instead, they’ll do their time at the county level–which means in county jail, on home detention, and/or in some sort of community program in their home counties. A large percentage of the women’s prison population qualifies for realignment, which means over the next three years, California’s three women’s prisons will lose an estimated one third to one half of their population. If all goes according to plan, and California loses 3,000 to 5,000 women prisoners, the state will have to decide what to do with one or two of its facilities.