CHICAGO — AS the nation's population of female prisoners continues to multiply, a growing movement of women ex-prisoners and advocates is gaining momentum to address their needs. Those needs were the focus of discussion at the well-attended sixth National Roundtable for Women in Prison here recently.
"There is a very exciting coalition that's becoming a more vocal voice ... on behalf of women in prison," says Ellen Barry, director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
The number of women in jails and prisons across the United States has grown astronomically. Their ranks have tripled since 1980 - growing from about 13,000 to more than 40,000 in 1989, according to US Bureau of Justice Statistics. From 1981 to 1989, the number of women inmates grew at a faster rate than that of men inmates. Women now account for only 5.7 percent of the prison population, but their numbers are expected to grow.
"It's an overwhelming situation, and to me it's very frightening," says Jana Minor, a prison minister in Illinois.
The majority of women are incarcerated for nonviolent economic crimes, such as drug offenses or theft, fraud, or forgery. Most are mothers, poor, young, undereducated; many are minorities. Almost half have been physically or sexually abused.
The skyrocketing numbers have resulted in severe overcrowding and charges that women's prisons have not improved their ability to handle and meet the needs of women prisoners.
One of the most serious problems incarcerated women face is keeping contact with their children. More than 75 percent are mothers. Most are single. Yet many have their parental rights terminated. Advocates say this scars both women and children.
"I don't think that folks can ignore the ripple effects of that incarceration on these women's families," says Brenda Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project for the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Another pressing issue is health care. While both men and women prisoners lack sufficient medical and mental health care, the situation is worse for women, especially pregnant women who make up an estimated 10 percent of the female prison population of local and state facilities. Because most prisons have inadequate staff and equipment, the women often receive poor obstetrical care and are deprived of proper diet and exercise. Women who have AIDS and women who need counseling for physical abuse or subst a
nce dependency are also often deprived of services.
Educational and vocational training for women in prison are also severely limited. Training, if offered, is usually in such low-paying, traditional female areas as sewing or typing.
Lawyers, social workers, and other advocates for women prisoners are lobbying for better conditions and programs in prisons and more alternative sentencing. Yet they see a disturbing trend.
"We're looking at building more prisons to resolve the problem - I don't think that's a good solution," says Gail Smith, director of Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers. "We need to look more creatively at how we sentence...."
More alternative sentencing programs, support groups, and counseling that help prisoners end drug dependency, learn skills, find jobs, and keep mothers and children together would do more to help women reintegrate into society, many say.
"I strongly feel if the needs are met, the recidivism rate would also be lower," says Leslie Brown, a former prisoner and battered woman who was granted clemency in 1988 after serving seven years of a 20-year sentence for killing her husband.
"I feel that to strengthen and help individuals reenter ... the community is to direct them to the resources available," says Ms. Brown, now active in prison ministry work with women prisoners in Illinois. Many don't know what is available, she says.
Although the network of advocates for women prisoners is better organized than several years ago and is litigating and lobbying more effectively, many say finding solutions fast is vital.
"The prison crisis in this country is nothing short of monumental - and that's particularly true for women," Ms. Barry says.