Women Offenders Right at 'Home'
Programs like California's Mother-Infant Care offer residential alternatives to incarceration
CHICAGO — IN 1983, Harriette Davis was seven and a half months pregnant when she was incarcerated in the California Institution for Women at Frontera. A battered wife, she had killed her husband in self-defense. Instead of serving her entire six-year sentence behind bars, she was able to finish the last seven months of a shortened sentence in the Mother-Infant Care program, a residential-care alternative-sentencing program for women.Ms. Davis spoke of her experience at a meeting in Chicago in May that brought together advocates for women in prison. Davis went into early labor in prison, was handcuffed, and taken to a public hospital where she delivered a baby girl. Two days later, her daughter was taken from her and placed in the care of Davis's mother and sister. Until she was accepted in the Mother-Infant Care program two years later, she saw her baby only every six months. At the Brandon House in San Jose, Calif., Davis was reunited with her daughter and was able to spend more time with her other two children. (Because the program takes children only under age six, the older children remained with relatives.) "The program gave a chance for me and my baby to get to know each other," she says. "It gave me a chance, little by little, to get used to going out into the community - just taking buses again, shopping; it helps you with job skills. ... it just really makes that transition [into the community possible] earlier." Alternative-sentencing programs for women, such as the Mother-Infant Care program, are growing across the United States. Such residential-care programs allow women offenders, with their children, to serve part of their sentences under supervision in a community setting. Many advocates say the programs benefit mothers and children, help women reenter the community, and are a solution to prison overcrowding. "Women are less likely to return to prison and more likely to get a job and get settled in the society and support their children" after going through such programs, says Ellen Barry, director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners With Children. The California Mother-Infant Care program takes eligible low-security women prisoners who have children under age six. Mothers participate in weekly parenting classes, do community service work, and have access to job training and continuing-education classes. Since 1985, when a lawsuit was filed against the California Department of Corrections that led to reforms and the expansion of the then six-year-old program, the program has grown from one center with three women to seven centers serving 125 women and 125 children. As the population of women prisoners continues to soar (it tripled from about 13,000 in 1981 to more than 40,000 in 1989, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics), advocates say more alternatives to incarceration are needed. The majority of women offenders are incarcerated for nonviolent economic crimes such as stealing to feed their children or to support their drug habit. A growing percentage of inmates are battered women who kill their abusers. Because most of these women are poor, single, young, undereducated, and alcohol- or drug-dependent, many say locking them up doesn't address their real problems. "What the system seems unable to do is look at who these women are" and review their specific needs to determine whether traditional incarceration is necessary, says Russ Immarigeon, a corrections analyst for the New York State Assembly. These needs include counseling for drug dependency and abuse, keeping mothers and children together, skill building, job training, educational opportunities, and general skills like learning how to balance a checkbook and open a savings account. After six months in the Mother-Infant Care program, women can choose to work or go to school. Davis attended college. She says the program also gives women the needed time to save money. In prison, inmates normally get a certain amount of "gate" money to help them start their new life once they are released. This sum usually ranges from $50 to $200. "If you're thrown out and you have nowhere to go, $200 doesn't last any time," she says in a phone interview from California. Many women who have been involved with illegal activities are liable to get back into them to support themselves, says Davis, who will soon become a nurse. There are at least 300 residential and nonresidential care programs around the US that supervise women and their children or just women, says Barbara Bloom, a criminal justice consultant and co-director of a National Council on Crime and Delinquency study that is evaluating some of these programs. "One of the recommendations this study will make is that the court systems and correctional jurisdictions begin to take a serious look at developing and/or expanding community-based programs for women offenders ... they are truly more practical in most cases than incarceration," Ms. Bloom says. Besides helping the women reintegrate into society and lead productive lives, residential care programs boast lower recidivism rates than prisons, many say. "Of the moms who went through my program in the four years we've been open, 84 percent are still out doing well. ... It's over a 20 percent higher success rate" than for women who serve their sentences in prison, says the Rev. Deborah Haffner, director of the Elizabeth Fry Center in San Francisco, one of the Mother-Infant Care programs. Such programs also save taxpayers money. "Many of the programs that function in this way are able to provide services for women and infants on a per diem cost of about $40 to $60 per day, whereas the average cost for incarcerating a woman in many state prisons can be in excess of $120 a day," Ms. Barry says. The California Mother-Infant Care legislation filed in 1985 is being used as a model for the drafting of a federal bill that would establish similar programs nationwide. Yet the chance of passing such a bill may be slim. Despite the advantages of alternative-sentencing programs, the trend is to incarcerate offenders and build more prisons. "People keep on telling me it's a pretty intense thing to try and get through Congress," says Maria Martino, staff associate at the National Prison Project, whose organization is working on the legislation. "I think there's some support for it and some realization that we have to develop alternative programs in the community with effective rehabilitation. I think we have a shot. The opportunity to educate is worth it."