Female Prison Ranks Double

Female Prison Ranks Double
Posted by FoM on February 02, 2000 at 10:51:31 PT
By Arthur Santana, Washington Post Staff Writer
Source: Washington Post 
The nation's female inmate population in state and federal prisons in the 1990s doubled, growing far faster than the male population, according to a federal study released yesterday by the General Accounting Office.The study, commissioned by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), also found that the majority of women in prison are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, are mothers and are incarcerated at great distances from their children, and that women in prison are more likely to suffer from HIV infection and mental illness than men are.
The study--the second commissioned by Norton on women-in-prison issues--prompted her to prepare three bills to help improve conditions for incarcerated women."In placing women in carbon copies of male institutions, the U.S. and the states are not meeting some important gender-specific health and other services," Norton said. "As a result, prison systems have failed to respond effectively to rates of HIV infection and mental illness among female inmates that are greater than among males and have actually reduced drug treatment--even though nonviolent drug crimes are the major cause for female incarceration."A separate study on the transfer of female inmates from D.C. prisons to Bureau of Prisons facilities found that two-thirds of the 218 female inmates relocated were sent to a federal prison in Danbury, Conn.--a facility 300 miles from the District. That's too far and one more reason to seek a community-based program in the District, Norton said."It's so far that there is very little contact between the children and their mothers," Norton said. "That creates a situation in which it will be very difficult to intergrate these mothers back into the care and supervision of their children once they're home."The GAO looked specifically at the federal Bureau of Prisons, the California Department of Corrections and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice--the nation's three largest prison systems.Norton said she will introduce a bill that requires, as a condition for receiving federal funding for construction of prisons for female inmates, states to submit a plan on how they intend to provide gender-specific health and other services.She said she also will submit a bill requiring the Bureau of Prisons to use existing prison construction funds to establish two pilot community-based facilities in the District for nonviolent, short-term or pregnant offenders.A third bill would allow sentencing alternatives in the federal system, such as allowing first-time nonviolent offenders to serve their sentences at a community-based facility.Norton, speaking at a news conference at the Capitol yesterday, said the rapid rise in the number of female inmates has, unfairly, long stood in the shadow of the widely publicized growing male inmate population."Society has paid no attention to the overcrowding of the female prison populations," Norton said.The nation's female inmate population rose from 5.7 percent of the U.S. prison population in 1990 to 6.5 percent by 1998, according to the study. The result, Norton said, was greater overcrowding in federal prisons for women than for men.Norton also pointed to a finding that female incarceration for violent crimes in state prisons has decreased from 49 percent in 1979 to 28 percent in 1997, and for property crimes from 37 percent to 27 percent in that period.That means that women are being incarcerated for drug crimes committed often to feed drug habits and for less serious property crimes than men, Norton said."Mandatory minimum and repeat offender provisions have had the unintended effect of sharply increasing female incarceration in male-pattern institutions even though, unlike the males, the female inmates have been convicted for overwhelmingly nonviolent crimes," Norton said.In what she called the "most shameful" finding, Norton pointed out that while the number of female inmates in federal and state prisons has increased from 1990 to 1997, treatment for drug use has declined. Because females are a small percentage of the nation's prison population, fewer prisons are required for them, meaning imprisoned mothers are often at great distances from their children, Norton said. The study reported that 84 percent of federal and 64 percent of states' female inmates are mothers.Norton said she believed a community-based sentence program and other alternatives would help relieve this problem.She said she was also troubled by the study's finding that female inmates have a higher rate of HIV infection and mental illness than men. Black females are also more than twice as likely as Hispanic females and eight times as likely as white females to be incarcerated. In part, that's because of the unequal racial impact of the mandatory minimum and repeat offender provisions, Norton said.In June, Norton released the results of her first GAO-commissioned study on women in prison. The study found that prison systems in the United States, including the District's, continue to see sexual misconduct by correctional staff members against female prisoners. By Arthur SantanaWashington Post Staff WriterTuesday, February 1, 2000; Page A08  Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company
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