BOSTON — Dawn Ring misses her kids. She and a few other women sitting in a small classroom have drawn battered desks into a tight circle to talk. As with mothers everywhere, the conversation often comes back to their children.
Mary and Dorothea worry about their daughters, who are misbehaving; Rose shows off a dog-eared baseball card featuring her son at bat; Dawn talks with quiet pride about her twins, a boy and girl who share her freckles and sandy coloring.
But this is no PTA meeting. The classroom is theirs, not their kids', and they aren't here voluntarily. Murder, prostitution, drugs, and fraud have brought these women to a Rhode Island prison where they are serving sentences of months or, in some cases, years.
They are part of an influx of women filling America's prisons at a rate that eclipses the male incarceration rate. More than two-thirds of the 137,000 women behind bars are mothers, often single parents. Most are incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related crimes that are now drawing harsher sentences.
The trend shows no signs of slowing, and evidence suggests America's justice system is woefully unprepared to deal with this new society of female prisoners, who present thorny family, health, and rehabilitation problems that male inmates don't have.
As states overhaul their welfare systems and prison-rehabilitation programs fail to keep pace with the growing inmate population, many experts believe the problems associated with women in prison will grow. And the repercussions of this female juggernaut, experts say, will be felt far beyond prison walls. They point in particular to the children of inmates, who are far more likely than other children to end up in the juvenile-justice system or in prison.
"We're creating a never-ending society of dysfunctionality," says Mary Ann Farkas, a criminologist at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "There are a lot of angry children separated from mom."
An explosion in incarceration
The US has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world, and while women represent just 6.3 percent of those behind bars, their numbers are growing rapidly. The female prison population jumped 6.4 percent between July 1995 and July 1996, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the US Department of Justice. In jails, which hold people for no more than a year, the average growth rate is even higher: an annual 10.2 percent for women since 1985, versus 6.1 percent for men.
"To say female incarceration is rising is an understatement," says Emily Edwards, director of Cleveland's Women's Re-entry Resource Network. "It's exploding."
Why the increase now? Sociologists offer a slew of reasons. The women in Dawn's group, who didn't want their last names used, have firsthand experience with many of them: from improved surveillance in retail stores to the growing numbers of poor women to changing attitudes toward female incarceration. Once sent to reformatories, women are now expected to do hard time.
But all the experts agree there's one major factor: mandatory drug-sentencing laws. Such laws impose fixed prison terms for drug offenses and have been the biggest force behind the rocketing female incarceration rate, they say.
Figures from the Washington-based Sentencing Project show 1 in 3 women in state prisons is there on drug-related charges, surging from 1 in 10 in 1979. The current rate for men is 1 in 5.
At the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Framingham, a sprawling compound where Massachusetts women were once sent for talking back to their husbands, records show 85 percent of inmates have a substance-abuse problem. The other 15 percent, the staff quips, are lying.
Drugs have made their mark in the Rhode Island prison's classroom, too. Dorothea, a tough-talking, wiry woman, is there for dealing cocaine. Rose, who killed her common-law husband after numerous beatings, will tell you her alcoholism and drug addiction contributed to the events of that night.
Thirty-six percent of the 221 women at the Rhode Island facility are there on drug charges, but staff worker, Sister Teresa Foley, contends the numbers can be misleading. "It's often masked. A woman might be picked up on prostitution charges, but why are they hooking? Or shoplifting, or writing bad checks?"
Dawn is a case in point. She's serving a year for prostitution - she prefers the word loitering - but was working to feed a voracious hunger for heroin. "I was spending about $350 a day," she remembers. A stocky woman with wavy hair and kohl-rimmed hazel eyes, Dawn is brusque but open.
"On a good day, it took three hours to earn enough," she says. "I did more robbing than loitering, but I gotta loiter to get in the car." She's clean now, but one way or another, the drugs have brought Dawn back to prison three times.
A different set of needs
Addressing the multiple problems of incarcerated women has always been difficult. Now, as rising populations strain prison budgets and staff even further, the situation is drawing scrutiny.
The US Department of Justice is investigating reports of sexual harassment and sexual abuse at prisons in Alabama as well as Michigan, which is one of 11 state prisons singled out in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. Class-action suits have drawn attention to harassment in other states, including Georgia, where three women's prisons have opened since 1989.
As more women enter prison, overcrowding compounds problems like sexual harassment, as it becomes more difficult to supervise staff. It can also strain resources for inmates' medical, psychological, or educational needs.
California boasts the world's two largest women's prisons, yet in late 1995 its facilities were operating at 60 percent to almost 100 percent overcapacity, according to HRW. Those conditions spurred inmates to sue, alleging that overcrowding limited access to everything from toilets - the women say they had to urinate in the stairwells - to education. And two of the state's prisons face suits that allege medical care so negligent it led to inmate deaths.
In 1993, Ohio and Virginia were among five states that didn't provide yearly health checkups, according to a survey of 49 correctional systems. Connecticut didn't offer pre- or post-natal care, though it reported 20 pregnant inmates. Gynecological care isn't available in Alabama and Georgia, though education is, as it is in every other state.
Critics say even education programs don't make the grade when it comes to helping women support themselves and their kids on release. Some experts attribute this failing to outmoded ideas of what women should learn. "In male institutions, you'll have 10 to 14 programs - computers, electrical training," says Dr. Farkas of Marquette University. "In a women's institution, you're lucky to have three, and they're more likely to be cosmetology and cooking."
Others see the inadequacy of services as a matter of money. "So much money goes into basic operating costs that it's harder to find funding to help prisoners," explains Jenni Gainsborough of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "The sheer increase in numbers is overwhelming systems that were just adequate before."
Programs are often based on those designed for men, yet women present different, some say tougher, challenges. As a Framingham staffer observes, "you're not likely to find a male inmate who's HIV-positive, drug-addicted, and pregnant."
Those traits would be layered on top of a more common profile. "These women are often their children's primary caregivers," says Phyllis Coontz, a University of Pittsburgh professor of criminal justice. Most have low self-esteem and few skills, she adds, and two-thirds to three-quarters are physical- or sexual-abuse victims. Abuse can often lead to incarceration, experts say, as many women turn to crime when they run away.
While much of this description fits the women in Dawn's circle, Dawn herself downplays similarities. She's kicked the drugs, her ex-husband has the kids, and self-esteem isn't her problem, she says. She might not have finished high school, but she has smarts.
But press a little harder and Dawn, usually chatty, is noticeably more subdued. It turns out she spent her high school years being shuffled between foster homes or taking care of two younger brothers while her mother drank. "We lived with her, but she was never there." When she was, there were beatings and abuse, "but it wasn't her fault, it was the pills." Though Dawn didn't turn to drugs until she was 21, adolescence took its toll. "I was more grown up than I should have been," she says quietly, and declares the subject closed.
Deciding where tax dollars go
Rehabilitation is a contentious issue. Some critics point to studies with male inmates that have shown it to be an "abject failure and at best marginally successful," says Mike Rushford, of the Criminal Legal Justice Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. Others argue there's no need for society to pay any more for criminals. Advocates for women inmates counter that men and women react to rehab differently. Criminologists like Farkas say neglecting it just leaves women locked in a criminal cycle that will ultimately cost the public more.
But as prisons struggle with greater intake, just offering rehabilitation will become more difficult. A recent study on MCI Framingham stated that as the population quadrupled between 1980 and 1989, programs failed to keep pace to such a degree that some 73 percent of addicted inmates were denied drug treatment in 1995. While warden Kathy Chmiele resolutely defends Framingham's services, only 130 of the 600 women incarcerated there can receive drug treatment at any given time. "The programs are very basic, but they're good," says Patricia Douglas, who is on her fifth stint in Framingham. "The biggest problem is having no support when I leave."
Most prison programs concentrate on extensive group and individual counseling to help addicts understand the reasons for their addiction and better control it. But critics say tax dollars shouldn't be spent to help curb voluntary behaviors.
It's a charge the women in Dawn's circle resent. "Let them be in our shoes for a minute," Mary says angrily. But the group, dressed in regulation blues, is split about how helpful general rehab programs are.
Only Rose says the experience has changed her: "I learned enough not to get involved in abusive relationships from the battered-women's program." Dorothea sees the change as an incremental, ongoing process. "You come in here enough times, you get enough knowledge not to come back," she says.
But Dawn, whose third stay here will end soon, is scathing. "As far as rehabilitation goes, there's none at all," she says. "I'm not talking about parenting classes, I'm talking about reality. We leave here, what are we gonna do?" Like Dawn, many women convicts come back more than once: In 1994, 20 percent of women in prison were repeat offenders, the Bureau of Justice Statistics says.
As at Framingham, women in the Rhode Island prison's drug-treatment program are more positive about rehabilitation than those in the general prison population. That divide might be due to the greater resources applied to drug programs, and to the fact that inmates in drug-treatment programs often must apply to get in, and demonstrate a readiness to change.
High walls, watchful eyes
The Rhode Island prison, formerly a mental institution, is a collection of sturdy red-brick buildings just off a main road in Cranston. Despite the glittering concertina wire that hems one structure in, the complex has the open feel of a campus. Behind the walls though, there's no mistaking the correctional atmosphere. Narrow halls begin and end with barred doorways, and uniformed guards of both sexes are everywhere, as are cameras, discreetly suspended from the ceiling.
"It's a little like being 'Big Sister,' " jokes Warden Roberta Richman of the bank of video screens in her office. From here, she can watch inmates throughout the prison, focusing closely enough to read the small print on posters.
Day-to-day life on the inside, Dawn says, is like "day camp from hell." After the rehab programs, the occasional softball game on the grounds, there is only the claustrophobic monotony of long days punctuated by five daily "counts," when each woman stands by her bed to be checked present.
While women's prisons are generally less violent, more cooperative, and less racially charged than men's, there are still dangers. Sexual coercion is rife, experts say, and violence is growing. Still, Dawn is lucky. Rhode Island, criminologists say, has one of the nation's best women's prisons.
An empty stroller
On the warden's screens, black-and-white images flicker: women working in the kitchen; talking in therapy; unpacking junk-food orders from the outside world. One shot shows a still, sun-filled room scattered with toys. In its center, casting a long shadow, is an empty stroller.
Most incarcerated mothers say separation from their children is their No. 1 stress factor. Seventy-five percent of these children go to foster homes or relatives other than the natural father, and prisons are usually located in rural areas that are hard to reach for families with few resources. (The California Institute for Women, for example, is five hours away from Los Angeles, the closest city.) As a result, just 9 percent of women in state prisons get visits from their minor children, according to a National Criminal Justice Commission report.
"Being separated from your children is the most hardest truth," Dorothea says to a chorus of agreement. Rose's parents bring her son, and Dawn's ex-husband drives the twins over every Saturday, but they're fortunate. Dorothea hasn't seen her children, who are with her mother, since her prison term began almost 3 1/2 months ago.
Some facilities provide busing from nearby urban centers to facilitate visits, but corrections officials say the difference between visiting rooms at a male and female facility is still striking. "When you lock a man up, the family unit usually stays intact," Ms. Richman says. "When you lock a woman up, you're destroying families."
This family disintegration, many experts say, is one of the greatest dangers of the current incarceration boom. They say children of inmates suffer negative effects that include traumatic stress, aggression, and withdrawal, and can lead to more serious dysfunctional behavior. These children are five times as likely to be imprisoned as other children, and more than half the inmates currently in the juvenile-justice system have a parent in prison, according to JusticeWorks, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit .
Some observers argue that separation from a criminal mother is often in a child's best interests. "If your own child is not an incentive to be responsible, what is?" asks Mr. Rushford, of the Criminal Legal Justice Foundation. "A lot of these women are immature, have drug problems. I suspect they're failing as parents to begin with."
Those who argue for minimizing mother-child separation with nonviolent offenders worry that with the current shift away from family reunification to foster care and adoption, more incarcerated mothers will lose their children to care that wouldn't necessarily be better. Many fear welfare reform will exacerbate the trend.
This has less to do with the retrenchment of services than with a stipulation that requires that after Aug. 22, 1996, those convicted of drug crimes - one-third of female inmates - are no longer eligible for welfare benefits upon release.
Many former welfare recipients are successfully moving into jobs, according to initial reports. But advocates insist this legislation will make it harder for inmates, especially those who've had minimal rehab or training, to succeed on release.
They describe a typical ex-convict with few skills, children to support, and a record that bars her from many jobs. If her child is in foster care, she must have work and an apartment to win them back.
"How do you ... support yourself?" asks Richman. Many, like Farkas, fear women will turn to the answer Rhode Island staffer Sister Foley supplies. "There are two ways," she says, "crime and prostitution."
Alternatives to incarceration
Most proposed alternatives to incarceration focus on reducing the cost to children - and to society - by putting nonviolent drug offenders in halfway houses or day-reporting centers, where they can get treatment, see their children, and even work.
Critics, like Rushford, are hesitant to fully embrace the idea. "Maybe you can rehabilitate some of them, but they have to make that choice," he says. "I think it's all about screening."
Nevertheless, it's a policy that's advocated by many in corrections, Richman included. "We're talking about policy that's exorbitantly expensive," she says of incarceration, explaining that women are far more expensive to imprison than men. Foster care can cost the state an annual $20,000 per child, and women often need more expensive care. "Why should it cost us $45,000 a year to incarcerate ... a shoplifter and substance abuser?" she asks.
There are halfway houses for women and their children already operating in some states, including the Women's Re-entry Resource Network in Cleveland. "Treatment costs a lot less than a jail cell every year," says Ms. Edwards, the director. "And it doesn't have an intergenerational cost to the children involved."
Some prisons have adopted the strategy. The Bedford Hills Correction Center in Bedford Hills, N.Y., has a nursery program where children up to 18 months old can live with their mothers. Inmates' role as mother is a significant one," says warden Elaine Lord. "We want to enable that relationship."
Shirley Cloyes, who runs Mothers in Prison, Children in Crisis, has been pushing to make alternatives to prison the norm for nonviolent drug offenders. Her group is starting a grass-roots campaign to repeal mandatory drug-sentencing laws and start a "drug mule" bill that would address the situations of women tricked into smuggling drugs. "Alternatives have been on the books for 20 years," she says. "But they've been underutilized and underfunded."
Those in the field express varying degrees of concern about the future. Some, like Ms. Gainsborough of the ACLU, argue that so long as drugs are seen as a criminal and not a social health problem, female incarceration will continue to skyrocket.
"I see a slow response," says Marquette's Farkas. "But we need more halfway houses and shelters ... and we'll definitely need more with welfare reform."
Dawn isn't going to wait that long. Upon release, she will head to North Carolina, where her mother lives. "If I stay here, I'll be be back [in prison], or I'll be dead," she says. If she stays clean for a year, she'll get custody of the twins. "I'm going to try and find a job and get along with my mom," she says. "Maybe get a place and a nice guy." She pauses, thinking about the idea. "That sounds kinda good."
A Prison Portrait
* The female prison population rose by 6.4 percent from July 1995 to July 1996.
* The female jail population has grown by 10.2 percent a year since 1985.
* 80 percent of women in prison are serving sentences for nonviolent offenses.
* In 1991, 1 in 3 women in state prisons was there on drug-related charges, up from 1 in 10 in 1986.
* Two-thirds of women in state or federal prisons are mothers of dependent children.
* Only 9 percent of women in state prisons get visits from their minor children.
* Children of inmates are 5 times as likely to be imprisoned as other children.
* More than half the children in the juvenile justice system have a parent in prison.
* More than 40 percent of women prisoners were physically or sexually abused before incarceration.
Sources: Bureau of Justice, The Sentencing Project,
JusticeWorks Community, National Criminal Justice Commission.