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While America’s jail population may be finally decreasing after decades of massive growth, that doesn't apply to women. In fact, the proportion of women spending time in jail is going up. Special correspondent David Tereshchuk explores some of the causes and potential remedies.
Criminal justice reform in America has resulted in an overall decline in incarceration. But that doesn't apply to one segment of the population: women in jail. Jail, as opposed to prison, is ordinarily used to detain people who've been accused or convicted of a non-major crime, with sentences generally lasting a year or less. Women now represent a growing proportion of that population behind bars. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent David Tereshchuk has our story.
It was a good day when we met Selena Lopez in South Central Los Angeles. Soon to be married, she was about to get the keys to her first real home. Three years ago she was in a very different place.
I struggled with substance abuse, which led me to my incarceration. I was in and out of county jail for about a year.
Like 4 out of 5 American women who go to jail, Lopez is a mother. Her three year old son Nathan was taken away from her by social services when she was jailed.
It broke me. Being sent to jail and having him taken away from me pushed me into my addiction harder than I ever would have thought. I did a couple of times for the grand theft auto. Her incarceration story is far from unusual. She's one of two-and-a-half million women who go to jail in America every year.
Jail is usually locally-run confinement for pre-trial custody and short-term sentences. That's the theory at least, but jail-terms can often turn out to be long, too – even multiple years. And there's an under-acknowledged fact about jails – While the male population has decreased since 2008, the female population has stayed about the same. The result being that women now comprise a higher percentage of the overall jail population.
We're seeing this big divergence between men and women.
Olive Lu, along with colleague Jacob Kang-Brown, at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, has studied the changing gender makeup in the nation's jails. They point to women's lower incomes as one roadblock to affording bail, which can lead to an overcrowded system.
Olive Lu, Vera Institute of Justice: Women compared to men are much more likely to be unemployed at the time they are sent to jail and their median incomes are about 30 percent lower than the men who are sent to jail.
The role women's relative poverty can play is all too familiar to Susan Burton. She runs the house where Lopez got her fresh start in life, and Burton herself was in both jail and prison during the 1980s. She served time for drug-related offenses after her son was killed in a car accident. It wasn't until she went to a treatment facility that she got the help she needed.
The other one's this way?
Yes, right here.
She has built a network of eight re-entry homes called 'A New Way of Life'. She has helped hundreds of once incarcerated women to get access to education, jobs and child custody legal services.
They are incarcerated for crimes of poverty like theft, like maybe writing a bad check on a bad account that they don't have the money in, and that becomes fraud. They languish in that jail because they can't make bail. Some of them want to get back to their children, so many times they'll just plead guilty because they want to have time served and get out.
With the higher proportion of women serving time, authorities across the country have decided to simply create more jail-space. Billings, Montana, has recently finished building a new, 148-bed women's jail. Lauderdale County, Alabama, is spending about 1.5 million dollars to convert a storage building into a women's jail. Portage County, Ohio, is creating new cells for over a hundred women in a $21 million expansion project.
David Tereshchuk, Lynwood, Los Angeles County, CA:
Los Angeles County has the distinction of running the biggest women's jail in the United States.
Sheriff's Department Lieutenant David Petrocelli gave us a tour.
Lt. David Petrocelli:
We're a little over 2,100.
: And this place was not built for that kind of population..
Lt. David Petrocelli, L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept:
No, it wasn't built for that population. So the buildings are not built to facilitate all the things that we need to do now, as a modern law enforcement agency.
Susan Burton, Founder, A New Way of Life: We overpopulate them, triple bunks, bunks in gym areas, bunks in day room areas. So I think we're going about what we do really, really backwards.
The state of California allocated $100 million dollars to L.A. County for building a whole new women's correctional facility. But local activists said the answer didn't lie in creating new jail-space.
Amber Rose Howard:
I am statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, otherwise known as CURB.
CURB's goal, says Amber Rose Howard, is to dismantle what she calls the state's "prison-industrial complex," and reduce its number of jails and prisons. She showed us around CURB's offices, which were once a former juvenile court building.
It's a locked-in holding cell. There's a toilet, a phone, a sink.
What's it like to work with this as a facility?
It's creepy but also, I think, inspirational because to know that this was formerly a place where folks got sent to jail and prison, but now it's a justice center.
Howard's mission was activated by having been herself a woman sent to jail, quite a young one. She was still in high school, on track for college, when she was arrested. We're not naming the charges because her criminal record has since been officially expunged. Her experience made her especially concerned about inmates' mental health, which studies show is more seriously affected among jailed women than men.
Amber Rose Howard, Statewide Co-Coordinator, CURB:
Let me tell you. If you don't already have struggles with mental wellness, you're definitely going to get some mental health issues when you're locked into a cage, when you're shackled at your wrists and at your ankles, when you're made to pull your pants down and cough and squat in front of several sheriffs at a time.
Howard and other activists opposed L.A. County's plans to convert a former immigrant detention center into a new women's jail. And earlier this year, the County Board of Supervisors changed their minds about creating the new facility.
Sheila Kuehl, Supervisor, L.A. County Board:
And so we blew it up. That's the good news. The bad news is we don't know what we're going to replace it with yet. Honestly.
Like many other politicians and administrators, County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl would, in an ideal world, have very few women ever sent to jail. But the current women's facility remains insufficient, and the County is again looking for a suitable location.
Sheila Kuehl, Supervisor, Los Angeles County:
We're trying to negotiate our way through that and maybe find a county facility that's already being used for incarceration that could be redone as a modern — I want to use the word nurturing jail, if there is such a thing, for women. There's a lot we can do in terms of identifying the needs of women where they're different from men. Mental health needs, physical health needs. They need trauma-informed care. There need to be classes, there need to be things to do, there need to be these playwriting groups or art or job-training of some kind.
Here in the existing women's jail, the Sheriff's Department practices what it calls Education-Based Incarceration. It includes schooling that's partly scholastic, and partly training inmates in life-skills and for potential jobs on the outside.
Lt. David Petrocelli, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department:
Beauty school is a vocational program. We take some of the ladies, they train with a person who is certified in that field. And they teach them how to cut hair. It gives them a skill set that they can market themselves with when they leave. The same thing with the culinary program that we have here. We're going to be starting up a computer lab very soon. We have a sewing program that's very productive. We cover a myriad of subjects from parenting to gender-responsive and therapeutic programs.
That term 'gender-responsive' has been gaining currency in the world of incarceration – meaning efforts by correctional institutions to provide for needs that are specific to women.
Gender-responsive systems, when I hear that term it makes my skin crawl. My reaction to that is: no, we don't need gender-responsive jails, we need resources in our communities. We don't need to lock women up in order to give them the things they need in order to prosper and reach their fullest potential.
I started feeling like I belonged and that I mattered.
Selena Lopez is an example of how 'resources in the community' can help. Susan Burton's reentry program gave her educational support as well as the legal assistance to get her son back.
And he's been home now a year, and it's been amazing. I've been able to connect that bond that I had broke because I was in jail. Having somebody believing in me, and investing in me, is what helped me. So I got my high school diploma in six months, which was something that really surprised because I dropped out 9th grade.
Susan Burton remains convinced that jail-inmates' needs can only be met outside of jail.
I'd like to see people being able to sleep in a real bed instead of a bunk-bed they call a 'coffin'. There's a lot of things that I'd like to see, but we can start with alternatives to incarceration. Pre-trial releases. Investments in our school systems, and investments in our communities.
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Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
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