Archive for Humane Exposures

Attendance Mysteriously Declining at Acclaimed NY Prison Nursery Program


Bedford Hills Correcctional Facility for Women

Bedford Hills Correcctional Facility for Women

The nursery at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester, NY allows inmates to keep their newborns with them behind bars for up to 18 months. The nursery has also served as a model for programs in 10 other states.

One study showed that 33% of moms who’d been separated from their babies wound up back in prison, compared to the fewer than 10% of them who were able to keep their babies and didn’t return to prison. The cost for each baby is roughly $24,000 per year, but that’s cheaper than the $30,000 per year that it costs if a mom, who didn’t receive any support, ends up back in jail–plus the high costs of foster care.

In October 2014, The New York World first reported on dwindling use at the state nursery and a similar city-operated program at the Rikers Island jail. Newly released records confirm that nursery usage at Bedford Hills has declined by 55% in the past seven years, despite research from academics which revealed that participation in the program can significantly cut recidivism. The overall female prison population declined by 16% over that time period.

In the late 1990s, an average of nearly 100 inmates participated in the state nursery program at Bedford Hills annually and at the now defunct nursery at neighboring Taconic Correctional Facility. By 2014, that figure dropped to 22.

Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) officials have still not provided responses to basic questions such as how many inmates were accepted or denied admission into the state’s nursery program, or how many inmates were removed from the program for punitive reasons. Some records refer to inmates being discharged from the nursery for “disciplinary sanctions,” but none offered a running tally of how many times this occurred or what kinds of infractions were committed.

One June 2014 report states that three inmates were removed from the Bedford Hills nursery for unspecified disciplinary reasons and makes no note of what ultimately happened to their infants. The same report states that the nursery, which is equipped for 27 mother-baby pairs, had only 11 participants at the end of that quarter.

The department has still not provided a comprehensive figure for how many inmates appealed their denials and how many of those appeals were ultimately successful, or how long the agency took to process applications. Both of those issues arose in lawsuits filed in court to contest inmates’ rejections to participate in the nursery program.

While Taylor Vogt, a DOCCS spokeswoman, did not provide comment specifically on the nursery’s population decline or the nature of denials, she wrote, “the number of admissions is reflective of the number of women who are pregnant at the facility” and that “guidelines dictate who is admitted.”

State law mandates women accepted into the program only be physically fit and that participation be in the best interests of the child, but correction officials have typically exercised more discretion based on subjective factors.

A page from a prison manual outlines additional criteria such as an inmate’s past parenting history, “the number of opportunities she has had to better her situation, and her expressed attitudes toward her unborn child.”

A long sentence and any disciplinary sanctions while incarcerated can also lead to denials and the manual notes that officials will place “great scrutiny” on “arson, assault and child abuse” as well as “prior incarceration with poor adjustment.”

Records show the agency granted physical access to the nursery to six different media outlets in 2013 alone, resulting largely in positive stories. Among them was ABC’s “Nightline,” which featured interviews with nursery mothers inside the facility.

The vast majority of the 2000 or so inmates who give birth in American prisons are separated from their babies shortly after birth. Bedford is one of the handful of women’s prisons that allow some incarcerated moms to keep their newborns with them, in some cases until the babies are a year and a half old.

Inmate Jacqueline McDougall, 26, told “Nightline”:

I think seeing my son Max’s little face every day and knowing that I have to take care of him is definitely going to be a big incentive for me. I’ve had time to clean up my act and really see where I was headed. It wasn’t in a good direction. At the end of it all now, I kind of think this saved my life.

No one convicted of violent crimes, arson or crimes involving children are allowed into Bedford’s program. McDougall landed herself in prison after she got caught stealing silverware. She said she needed the money to buy drugs, including prescription pills and cocaine. By the time she was sent to prison, McDougall said she was clean, but also pregnant.

Dr. Janet Stockheim, a pediatrician who comes every two weeks to check up on the babies in the prison said it can benefit a baby to be raised behind bars:

The babies aren’t aware. They get excellent care. They are very well-bonded to the mother. Bonding gives a baby trust in the world that they will be taken care of. The babies do better here than they would on the outside with some of these mothers.

Max and his mother have never spent a full day apart. Aside from her chores in the prison block, McDougall is a full-time single parent, bathing, diapering, and nursing, which heightens bonding for both mother and baby. The mothers also get parenting classes.



“Face Forward” Grants Offers Training and Credentials to Help Court-involved Youth Overcome Barriers to Success

Youth who have been in the juvenile justice system often face numerous challenges as they attempt to enter the workforce and become productive citizens. The stigma that a juvenile record carries can close doors before they ever open. All too often, these hurdles continue into adulthood and become overwhelming barriers that sustain a cycle of crime and incarceration.

To stop the cycle before it starts, the U.S. Department of Labor launched the “Face Forward” initiative designed to help court-involved youth overcome barriers early on and provide occupational training and credentials that will help them open the door to career success.

The goal of the Face Forward program aligns closely with President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative which seeks to close opportunity gaps still faced by too many young people and often by boys and young men of color.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said:

We all succeed when we all succeed, and that’s what the Face Forward program is all about. With these grants, we can create a brighter future for these youth, build safer communities and strengthen our economy as a whole.

This year is the third round of the Face Forward grant initiative which uses the most promising workforce and juvenile justice strategies available. The grants also build on the department’s commitment to fund sustainable programs through the career pathways initiative, which better coordinates education and training services to enable workers to attain industry-recognized credentials and find jobs.

Grantees are expected to provide a range of services that include case management, mentoring, education and training services. Funded programs will also help to eliminate the stigma of a juvenile record by offering services to seal juvenile records and providing opportunities to handle delinquency complaints outside of the juvenile justice system.

In 2015, the department plans to award four grants of $5 million each to intermediary organizations who will then work with local service providers in no less than three communities across no less than two states. The remaining funds will be awarded to approximately 10 community organization for up to $1.05 million each. Preference will be given to grantees that target communities with high-poverty and high-crime rates.

Grantees will provide services to youth between the ages of 14-to-24 that have been involved in the juvenile justice system, but never convicted in the adult criminal system.

In 2013 DOL awarded more than $26 million in grants to 28 community organizations to help juveniles develop skills, enter the workforce and overcome the stigma of their juvenile records.

Because juvenile arrests can become a major barrier to inclusion  and advancement in the workforce, grantees  will collaborate with nonprofit legal services providers to assist in expunging  the court records of juvenile offenders and/or provide diversion programs, as  designated by the juvenile justice system. Grantees will also offer youth mentoring services, education and training leading to industry-recognized  credentials and post-program support and follow-up services.

Eligible juvenile offenders must reside in the geographic area to be served; have never been involved  with the adult federal, state or local criminal justice systems; have never  been convicted of a sex-related offense other than prostitution; and be currently  involved or have been involved in the juvenile justice system, or be candidates  for diversion under state guidelines for juvenile diversion programs.

Grants were awarded through a competitive process open  to any nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) status, unit of state or  local government, or any Indian and Native American entity eligible for grants  under Workforce Investment Act Section 166 in areas with high poverty and crime rates that met the requirements of the solicitation.

The grants will operate for  a period of 39 months, which include six months of planning, 24 months of  operation, and a minimum of nine months of post-program support and follow-up  services for each participant.

Communities served by the frogram include New York, Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis,

$63.6 Million Federal Grant Helps Every State Deal With Problems of Student Homelessness

Milwaukee Public Schools has employed a homeless kidsstudent homeless coordinator since 1987, although they mostly worked with shelters until the 2002 McKinney-Vento Act. During the 2011 fiscal year, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youths Grant allocated $63.6 million across the country, helping every state address the problems associated with student homelessness. In the Milwaukee School District, the McKinney-Vento grant, along with Title I funding, support three homeless coordinators, with the requirement that school districts remove all barriers to the educational process for homeless children and reach out to more homeless kids – including those who have sleeping arrangements that are not permanent or regular.

According to a 2009 study, 40% of Milwaukee children are poor. In the Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest school district in Wisconsin with an enrollment of 80,000 students, 80% qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. More than 2,500 of the students have been identified as homeless.

Despite these figures, the school district has taken strides towards improving attendance rates and increasing outreach efforts to families and community agencies, and last year the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth recognized Milwaukee Public Schools for its outstanding school-based program in homeless education, in which each principal appoints someone in the school who identifies homeless families who are then enrolled in a database.

Catherine Klein, one of the homeless coordinators with the school district who oversees the programs of 180 schools, says:

We encourage homeless contacts to keep an eye on students so they can refer them to programs. To ensure that all school staff members know about it, we train homeless contacts every year. Teachers usually know the children are homeless and give them extra time or a place to do homework projects in the classroom.

The program provides services including free lunch, transportation, access to school supplies and access to all other school programs like special education and tutoring. The coordinators also provide community resource guides to families, showing them how to obtain low cost healthcare, dental care, locations of shelters, food pantries and instructions on how to navigate the social service system.

Klein has seen the number of families served increase 15-20% every year – partly due to school personnel being more aware of the program, but also the economics of the area. For the past two years the program has seen more involvement with organizations and agencies that give material donations to the district.

Lee Wackman is chairman of HL Palmer Masonic Angel Fund, which provides assistance to children in need, as requested from school principals. Wackman chartered the foundation in Milwaukee about four years ago. One day last winter, he went to an elementary school where he saw four children arrive with no coats, and after going from class to class, learned that 49 students came to school without jackets. Within 24 hours, the Angel Fund acquired and brought in jackets for all of them.

In addition to clothing, the foundation delivers 500 to 1,000 hygiene kits at a time to schools, containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant and a laundry bag with a note that says “touched by an angel.”

Wackman knew a 16-year-old student whose counselor from school called saying he had been wearing the same clothes for three months. He took him to a department store to buy some nice casual clothing for school. The student told Wackman he had been living in a friend’s basement and had wanted a Christmas for the past two years. The boy said, “You just gave me a Christmas.”

15,000 Elderly Female Prisoners Serve Long Sentences, Pose Minimal Public Risk

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

According to the ACLU’s 2012 report: At America’s Expense: Mass Incarcerarion of the Elderly, there are 246,600 aging prisoners (50 and older) nationwide. The four jurisdictions with the highest actual number of elderly prisoners are California (27,680), Texas (27,455), Florida (17,980) and the federal prison system (25,160). These four jurisdictions comprise 43% of the nation’s aging prisoners. About 15,000 of these elderly prisoneres are women.

The lack of appropriate healthcare and access to healthy living prior to incarceration, added to the heavy stresses of life behind bars, accelerate the aging process of prisoners so that they are actually physically older than average individuals.The elderly prisoner population increased, on average, by 145% between 1997 and 2007 in 16 southern states—much higher than the total prison population growth rate in those states. White prisoners comprise the largest segment of aging prisoners (42% but Black (33%) and Hispanic (15%) aging prisoners are overrepresented.

The elderly prison population is increasingly comprised of individuals sentenced to
prison for long periods of time, (20 years or more) and they increasingly remain in prison into old age. In 1979, only 2% of aging prisoners fell into this category nationwide, but data collected from jurisdictions shows that this percentage is far higher now. For example, the percentage of aging prisoners now is 15% in Mississippi and 19% in Ohio.

Many individuals who would have been sentenced to shorter periods of incarceration for repeat crimes before 1979 are now caught in the net of later-enacted habitual offender laws and given punishments of 20 years or more. The majority of aging prisoners are incarcerated for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

In Texas, 65% of aging prisoners are in for nonviolent drug crimes, property crimes and other nonviolent crimes. In North Carolina, 26% of prisoners age 50 and older are in prison under habitual offender laws or for drug crimes. Another 14% are in prison for fraud, larceny, burglary, breaking and entering and traffic and public order violations.

The percentage of aging prisoners first imprisoned after they turned 50 is declining. In 1979, 41% of aging prisoners fit into this category nationwide. But in Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire, this percentage dropped to 4-8% in 2012.

Research has conclusively shown that by age 50 most people have significantly outlived the years in which they are most likely to commit crimes. For example, arrest rates drop to just over 2% at age 50 and are almost 0% at age 65. There is also overwhelming evidence that prisoners 50 and older are far less likely to return to prison for new crimes than their younger cohorts. For example, only 7% of New York state prisoners released at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions, and this number was 4% for prisoners released at age 65 and older. In Virginia, only 1.3% of prisoners age 55 and older returned to prison for a new conviction.

It costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older, so states will save, on average, $66,294 per year per released aging prisoner.

To address unnecessary overcrowding of elderly prisoners, states should grant conditional release to those who pose little public safety risk. States should also utilize and expand medical parole. To accommplish these reforms, states should increase the transparency and accountability of parole boards. Moreover, Congress should reauthorize and expand the provision of the Second Chance Act that authorizes a federal aging prisoner-release program.

To prevent prisons from unnecessarily filling up with aging prisoners, lawmakers should rethink this country’s harsh and disproportionate sentencing regime. The “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality unnecessarily incarcerates millions of people for extraordinarily long periods of time—well into old age, and sometimes until they die.

States and the federal government should reintroduce proportionality into sentences for crimes and should: repeal strict, inflexible and often irrational mandatory minimums laws that require the automatic imposition of brutally long and disproportionate prison sentences and prevent individualized sentencing. These laws prevent judges from tailoring the punishment to the individual circumstances of the case, the defendant and the seriousness of the offense.


Study Finds Juvenile Offenders Do Better Close To Home

Juvenile criminal offenders in Texas who are placed

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

under county supervision, close to home, are less likely to be rearrested than those placed in state-run correctional facilities, according to researchers at Texas A&M University. The study “Closer to Home: An Analysis of the State and Local Impact of the Texas Juvenile Justice Reforms” found in 2010 that 43.5% of youth released from state-run incarceration were reincarcerated within three years, versus only 2.4% after three years who were disposed to deferred prosecution. 

In 2007, after revelations of abuse in state-run secure juvenile correctional facilities, lawmakers prohibited youth who committed misdemeanors from confinement in secure facilities and lowered the age of the states’ jurisdiction over youth from 21 to 19, dramatically reducing the number of youth in confinement. Policymakers later established a grant program that gave financial incentives to counties to decrease the rate of confinement.

The researchers say the reforms resulted in a decrease of the average daily juvenile population in secure confinement — from 3,000-3,500 to about 1,000. The drop in population allowed for the closing of many facilities, saving the state millions of dollars.

Researchers also learned that when juvenile offenders aren’t confined to secure facilities, and are instead under community supervision — such as juvenile probation, drug treatment programs, counseling or “boot camps” — recidivism rates decline.

Miner Marchbanks III of the Public Policy Research Institute  at Texas A&M, co-author of the study, said:

One would think that if you take away this major punishment of confinement, crime is going to go up, but in fact, that’s not what happened. Recidivism doesn’t go up just from taking confinement away.

According to the study, youth incarcerated in state-run facilities are 21 percent more likely to be rearrested, and they are three times for more likely to have committed a felony if they are rearrested.

Since there can be hundreds of community programs designed to help deter juvenile crime, the researchers categorized the programs as either skills-based (such as physical activities programs), treatment-based (such as counseling or drug treatment) or surveillance-based (such as probation requiring check-ins). When analyzing the data, the researchers controlled for 41 variables including race, ethnicity and gender, gang affiliation, living situation, prior offenses, physical abuse and school outcomes.

The researchers believe juveniles under county supervision are less likely to be rearrested due to a number of factors, one being continuing contact with family members.

Austin Clemens, the other study co-author, says:

Many of these secure correctional facilities are located far away from home, and due to time and financial constraints, family members might have been unable to visit very often. So this type of isolation from family could have had a negative effect.

The researchers found a tremendous amount of randomness in courts deciding who went to state confinement and who went under county supervision. “When you are incarcerating juveniles with relatively minor offenses right alongside those who have committed more serious crimes, you may be exposing them to negative influences,” Marchbanks says. “Then there’s the issue of perceived fairness; if your friend gets off with a treatment program but you’re sent to a secure facility 500 miles away, that has to have some sort of ‘the system is against me’ effect.”

Keeping offenders in the community may also be more beneficial because local probation officers may know the children and the community better than a corrections officer hundreds of miles away at a state-run facility.

The researchers point to several standout Texas counties whose rates of recidivism since the reforms were enacted are notably low: El Paso, Dallas and Cameron. And they add that Tarrant County (Ft. Worth), which fell into the “worse-than-expected category,” went about instituting reforms immediately upon this revelation.

Marchbanks said of Tarrant Co.:

They showed extraordinary leadership. Instead of ignoring the results or being defensive, they went straight to work for improvement.



Changes at Eureka, CA’s Multiple Assistance Center Could End Homelessness in Humboldt County

Humboldt County in Northern California will be redesigning its transitional housing program for families into a model that emphasizes Housing First and rapid re-housing, although community fears and pushback have come as a result of this big change. Although a comprehensive, effective safety net recognizes a community’s diverse needs and offers a full circle of care, which includes activities like transitional housing, nationally we are working with limited resources, and when doing so, it is important to focus those resources toward approaches that are actually reducing homeless numbers and doing so in the most cost-effective way possible.

Transitional housing may be an appropriate intervention for some individuals and families experiencing homelessness, but for many, the same outcomes can be achieved through rapid re-housing, and at a significantly lower cost. Transitional housing is one of the most expensive interventions for homelessness. It also makes the assumption that some people are not ready for housing, but we’re all ready for housing. Shelter is a basic need, and once people have permanent housing, it allows them to lower their daily level of stress, which can in turn have positive effects on other issues such as mental health, substance abuse, employment, and education. Effective rapid re-housing programs focus on the housing first, and then follow-up with other services that clients want or need. It empowers clients to make these decisions on their own, to take their path toward self-sufficiency one step at a time.

Humboldt County needs to focus on rapidly re-housing the families at the MAC [Multiple Assistance Center] and targeting remaining funds to Housing First programs for its chronically homeless population. This approach will not only save money but also allow them to put their compassionate Humboldt hearts into action. Humboldt County is unique, and change is hard, but the area’s denizen’s need to imagine little Humboldt County joining the ranks of Salt Lake City, Phoenix and New Orleans in ending chronic homelessness.The Multiple Assistance Center, better known as “the MAC,” is a 100-bed complex currently operates as a transitional housing facility with on-site programs aimed at helping the families who live there overcome the challenges of homelessness.

Denise Mattson who has been living with her husband and their baby at the MAC, says:

We recently had a workshop about housing, and they taught us about credit reports, how you can look and see what prevents us from getting housing — like if you have a water bill that needs to be paid off. I have also taken life skills courses, learning about how to find employment, fill out housing applications and even reduce stress. And my husband has been attending a fathership group.

This program works. It puts more people into housing. It’s the first program I’ve seen that actually works.

Eureka’s MAC

The facility is operated by the nonprofit Redwood Community Action Agency (RCAA) in partnership with the County of Humboldt and the City of Eureka, which owns the property. These agencies, led primarily by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, recently decided to make some dramatic changes, repurposing the MAC building. Starting this summer the facility will no longer house or provide services to families; instead it will be used as an intake facility geared toward helping the county’s chronically homeless individual men.

Families living at the MAC, who in recent years have been given as long as 18 months to get their lives back on track before moving out, were notified they’d have to leave no later than June 30. The county and RCAA are working to get each family placed into more permanent housing, with funding for support services following them into the community.

Phillip Crandall, director of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, says:

I want to reassure everyone that the county is not in the business of increasing homelessness, and we’re certainly not going to be throwing children and families out into the streets. We would not close the MAC if we didn’t have an alternative plan for the families.

That alternative plan focuses on getting homeless individuals and families placed into permanent housing as quickly as possible, as opposed to the transitional housing approach embodied by the MAC.

Crandall and other officials say this shift in approach was motivated by two main factors: evidence and funding. In recent years, government agencies that deal with chronic homelessness — particularly the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — have themselves shifted gears, putting less focus on transitional programs like the MAC and more on “housing first” approaches, including rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing.

Ed Cabrera, a San Francisco-based spokesman for HUD, said that the old-school model for addressing homelessness focused on “housing the most housing- ready”–the people who could show up for meetings and fill out applications.  But HUD is now encouraging local communities to take more strategic approaches in hopes of reaching “the most visible, the most vulnerable — the chronically homeless.”

In Eureka these days the most visible homeless people are usually men, often with addiction and/or mental health problems. This is the community that RCAA and the county hope to serve better by turning the MAC building into an intake facility where these men can stay for roughly 30 to 60 days while a long-term plan is developed for their housing and services.

Eureka has arguably been the ugliest and most volatile battleground in the fight to end homelessness locally, with regular raids on homeless camps, roundabout enforcement efforts like the a shopping-cart ordinance and escalating community vitriol which was partially (and illogically) sparked by the New Year’s Day murder of father Eric Freed.

With public outcry over homelessness reaching a fever pitch, the city commissioned a homelessness policy paper from a Sacramento consulting firm called Focus Strategies. That paper, released last fall, encouraged a new approach:

Focus Strategies strongly advises the City of Eureka not to pursue approaches directed at better managing the existing problems, such as by increasing the frequency of police sweeps or creating a legalized camping area or ‘tent city.’ All available evidence shows that providing homeless people with housing, without making participation in other services a pre-condition, is the most effective way to reduce homelessness.

The latest messaging and data suggest so. According to the federal government’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, housing first programs “allow people with one or more serious disabling conditions to stabilize their housing and address underlying conditions that often have gone untreated for many years.”

The philosophy goes all the way to the top of U.S. government. President Obama helped codify the strategic shift during his first year in office by signing the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Acct of 2009. And when federal agencies adjust positions, nonprofit grant funders tend to follow suit. Sure enough, the shift in strategies has been trickling down to local communities around the country.

Women Face Many Obstacles After Prison Release


Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

A recent Open Society Institute study found that public opinion on crime and criminal justice has shifted over the past few years. In every demographic group surveyed, even among the groups thought to be most conservative or “hard on crime,” respondents supported an approach that would deal with the causes of crime rather than the continued spending on warehousing prisoners. Nearly two-thirds of all respondents agreed that the best way to reduce crime is to effectively rehabilitate prisoners by require education and job training so that once released, prisoners have the tools to proactively support themselves. The overwhelming change in opinion from a more punitive to a more rehabilitative approach to crime provides a backdrop to creating the concrete resources and policy changes needed to promote successful reentry.

The major issues that women face after release from prison are: Re-establishing a home and family life, including regaining legal and physical custody of children; finding affordable housing and meeting other basic needs; securing employment that pays a sufficient income; creating a new social network that may or may not include intimate relationships; fulfilling the multiple conditions of a parole plan, including continued sobriety, if not recovery, from alcohol or drug addiction; and negotiating the stigmatized perception of women ex-prisoners by the general public-potential employers, landlords, and community members.

Across the U.S., an estimated 1.5 million children have a parent held in a state or federal prison, an increase of more than half a million since 1991. Many of these children grow up in foster care, with grandparents or other relatives, or bouncing among an array of temporary caretakers. Women in prison have few opportunities for parenting from the inside and they worry about the impact of their separation on their children.

One prisoner said of her 15-year-old son:

My son is me. I see me all over him and I got to stop it right now. I got to do something, you know, whereas nobody did nothing for me. They did what they thought they can do, but, they were in their own sicknesses and their own problems so they couldn’t really help me and I didn’t really want their help, either. You know, I was 15; you can’t tell me nothing. I know everything, you know. But I’m trying to put my mind back to how I thought then where my son is at now,  so I can deal with that. Oh, God, I don’t want my kids to go through this.

Children of African American families are hit particularly hard. Nearly half the parents behind bars are Black; another 20 percent are Hispanic. Unlike locked-up fathers, about two-thirds of women in prison lived with their children prior to incarceration and are more likely to resume custody of them after release. As these mothers struggle to make a fresh start, they will encounter a myriad of legal barriers that may make it extraordinarily difficult for them to succeed in caring for their children. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare reform legislation of 1996 (TANF) and the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) often present oppressive roadblocks to women leaving prison.

The TANF legislation, a complete overhaul of our social welfare system, was intended to reduce welfare dependence through work, but unintended effects of the legislation have produced an increased proportion of people of color remaining on welfare who are unable to get or keep adequate employment. In addition, the policies do not address the lack of adequate financial support for poor relatives caring for children whose parents are incarcerated, and stipulates against financial support for poor parents with drug felony convictions who are the primary care takers for their children upon release from prison.

As a consequence of the federal and state “war on drugs” and the increasing number of convictions and “mandatory minimum” sentences that include prison time for women (who often possess even small amounts of controlled substances), drug convictions have become the largest single factor accounting for the rapid increase of women in prison. A provision in the TANF legislation stipulates that persons convicted of a state or federal offense involving the use or sale of drugs are subject to a lifetime ban on receiving cash assistance and food stamps. Each state has the option for whether or not the ban is enforced. Generally, the woman’s children may still be eligible for limited cash assistance and the ban does not extend to food stamps.

It is estimated that as many as 92,000 women in the states that enforce the welfare ban in full or in part will be affected by it, and a majority of the women affected are African American. The lifetime ban on welfare assistance, especially for women who have children to support, will have a serious effect on women’s ability to overcome addiction, to raise their children, find work, and access drug treatment services. Welfare assistance is a pivotal transitional mechanism for poor and low-income families who face economic insecurity in the weeks and months after release from prison. Losing access to public benefits is likely to make it harder for mothers with criminal records to stay clean and sober, avoid abusive relationships, regain custody and take care of their children, seek and retain employment, and resist engaging in criminal activity.

The second major policy affecting former women prisoners is the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). This Act had as its goal the reduction of children in foster care, increased permanent placement with relatives, increased adoptions and the increased number of children safely reunited with biological parents. The negative unintended effects of this law include: the increased terminations of parental rights; a limited increase in adoptive homes (especially for older children and those disabilities); increases in both formal and informal kinship care – often without the necessary financial support for these kinship arrangements; and a lack of adequate time to achieve reunification with incarcerated parents and parents needing substance abuse treatment. Due to ASFA’s expedited timeline for termination of parental rights, any parent who goes to prison, even for a short time, faces the risk of losing her children forever. To protect their rights, incarcerated mothers must work consistently, and against difficult barriers, both while in prison and afterwards.

Next, safe, decent and affordable housing is critical to the well-being of women with and without custody of their children after they are released from prison. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in their “snapshot” survey of women detained at Cook County Detention Center, one of the nation’s largest, found that 54% reported being homeless (defined as residing in an emergency or transitional shelter, doubled up with family and/or friends, staying outside, or in cars) in the 30 days prior to entering the jail. The study also reported that those women without housing are likely to be detained more than six times. Of those women who were unemployed, 23% indicated they were not employed because they had no place to live.

The need for “a safe place to be,” which most of us define as home, is paramount for getting and keeping a job, kicking a drug habit, escaping an abusive relationship and moving back into the community.

Disinvestment in communities and deterioration of housing stock has led to the displacement of lower income households in urban centers, the destination of most women leaving prison. Also, the federal government’s “One Strike Initiative” allows public housing authorities to evict or refuse housing to applicants based on their personal use of an illicit substance or a felony drug conviction. The law holds particular risks for low-income women of color who are most often the head of household in public and subsidized housing. Not only can a tenant be evicted due to her own drug use, but she can also be booted out because a visitor possesses or uses drugs without her knowledge. States vary in the length of time the ban is in effect; in Illinois, the bar on admission to public housing is five years for all felony convictions. This effectively precludes many released women who served a sentence for a drug offense from reapplying for public housing.

Residential halfway houses for ex-inmates in the transition back to community from prison have been proven to be effective in facilitating participants’ reentry. Family is not the only or the best housing option for some women, particularly those with an addiction.

An evaluation of a metropolitan residential center for ex-incarcerated women found that over the first five years of operation, only 20% of former residents returned to prison after departure as compared to the state recidivism rate of 43.7%. Women living at this facility were uniform in their recognition of the importance of having a safe place for working through some of the emotional issues related to incarceration or past struggles, as well as receiving the information and resources for taking steps in rebuilding their lives.

Women’s focus on relationships with others is a major source of self-worth and empowerment that defines their perceptions of the world and their role or place within it. But relationships can also inhibit personal growth and be physically and emotionally debilitating. The rate of abuse they incarcerated women have experienced either within their families or by intimate partners is quite high (estimates vary from 44% to 80%), much higher than the incidence in reported by women in the general population. In addition to the multiple physical problems women experience as a result of violence, the psychological effects have been identified as low self-esteem, clinical levels of depression, lack of assertiveness, feelings of powerlessness, strong fear reactions to threatening situations, and vulnerability to medical illness. There is also some evidence that women’s involvement in drug use and sales, as well as other criminal activity may be an extension of their relationship with their intimate partner.

And gender inequality, economic marginalization, criminal justice practices, racism, and violence against women intersect to “entrap” women of color and send so many to our nation’s prisons with little access to the counseling and services they need to change their lives. Reconstructing relationships can be a source of healing, connection, and support that women exiting prison need.

Finally, incarceration results in women being separated from their children, their communities and other sources of regeneration and positive support. Women’s contacts with people “outside the walls” can help them stay connected to goals and opportunities beyond their prison sentence. For example, a woman in a prison facility in Kansas got involved first as a participant, later as a co-leader in an educational group that was sponsored by a battered women’s shelter. When she came out of prison, she got her first job at the shelter that then provided her with enough stability to later able to buy a house.

Depending on the length of the incarceration, many women when first exiting from prison will say that they believe they have a tattoo on their forehead that proclaims them as “ex-con.” A former prisoner not only has to construct a new self, based on the personal desire to create a non-criminal life, but she also has to deal in some way with others’ expectations. Such expectations are often derived from ignorance, outdated notions, or judgmental preconceptions. Stigma feeds into the forces of isolation and denial that push women deeper into a self-hating process and farther away from the hope of rehabilitation and reintegration. Advocates need to explore how to help women manage the societal stigma related to being a felon that is both real and perceived. An important aspect of managing stigma is making choices for when and how a woman discloses her ex-inmate status.

Groups can be one method for women to discuss how they can deal with questions about having been in prison. The “everyone in the same boat” phenomenon can provide a mutually supportive context for women to effectively address some of the issues they will have to face once they are released.

Comprehensive drug treatment of at least 90 days, when linked to aftercare, has been demonstrated as effective in the successful reintegration of ex-offenders into their communities. Nationally, it is estimated that only 25% of state and federal prisoners participate in either drug treatment or other drug abuse programs.

Women who are unable to find housing may find that residential drug treatment programs provide a viable temporary alternative for them. But a shortage of treatment slots coupled with increasing demand in the community may mean that women exiting prison will not have access to these facilities. In addition, the unavailability of residential care for children to accompany their mothers to the facility while the woman is engaged in treatment, means that women may be forced to choose between regaining custody (after they’ve been separated from their children while incarcerated) and treatment.

Of the multiple hurdles facing women finding employment, the reality of the stigma and bias that women who have a criminal record face is one of the most serious. Many employers are hesitant to hire applicants with conviction histories. When a woman’s criminal history is coupled with previous substance use, the perceived liability increases exponentially. This third rung of jeopardy (along with racism and sexism) increases the difficulties and frustrations of women who want to become self-sufficient and contributing members of their communities.

There are several strategies for creating alternatives to incarceration for non-violent and drug-affected women, and specific policies that should be modified or nullified in order to give women exiting prison an opportunity to reconstruct their lives. We must advocate for changes in the following laws and policies to assist women in maintaining their ties to their children while incarcerated and provide the legal and economic support that will enable them to regain custody of their children, as they have the basic supports to do so, after their release from prison.

  • Repeal federal lifetime welfare bans under TANF. Short of federal repeal, there is room to push individual states to opt out of the ban or modify it (as Illinois has done linking this consequence to sales rather than a possession conviction)
  • Consider not only drug treatment programs that could allow women to maintain eligibility for TANF, but also alternative programs such as job training or GED programs following an in-depth assessment of their individual needs that could help with addressing the reasons they became involved with drugs.
  • Develop strategies aimed at informing women who are denied cash assistance and food stamps of the other benefits and services for which they are eligible, particularly Medicare, job training and employment programs.
  • Encourage use of TANF funding flexibility to target resources to assist ex-inmate women to secure job training and education on the state level.
  • Encourage and support formalized kinship care placements with family members with subsidy equitable to that of non-family foster care without restrictions on the time in care so that women can maintain their relationships with their children if not legal custody.
  • Require that child welfare authorities remain in touch with incarcerated parents so that they have every opportunity to attend hearings on the status of their children in state care.
  • Facilitate visitation between children and incarcerated mothers whenever possible.
  • Make appropriate reunification services available to incarcerated mothers beginning prior to release.
  • Explore alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent and drug-related offenses that could make child welfare intervention and child removal unnecessary.

The following recommendations address some of the structural issues that prevent women from having access to housing, the foundation of successful reentry.

  • Congress should consider increasing the stock of subsidized housing so that mothers reentering the community after their incarceration can have access to subsidized housing for their families to begin rebuilding their lives.
  • Public Housing Authorities should have the flexibility to begin evaluating evictions and admissions on a case-to-case basis, to look at mitigating circumstances, rehabilitation efforts, and to fully weigh the consequences of a loss of subsidized housing for a family.
  • For families with children, Public Housing Authorities could use the “best interest of the child” standard when determining whether to grant admission to a felon or evict families based on drug activity.
  • Create a comprehensive housing plan with women while they are incarcerated to help them secure housing upon release by augmenting existing resources for transitional, residential housing and investing in the development of affordable housing for formerly detained women.
  • Divert funds from prison construction and maintenance to building long-term shelters for women in transition from prison.

Affirming and mutually supportive relationships can reinforce women’s efforts as they engage in the process of rebuilding their lives.

  • Correctional facilities could assist women prisoners in maintaining contacts with positive people in their support system and to help them identify and develop free world contacts.
  • Correctional facilities could widen the scope of rehabilitation services available to address women’s multiple and complex needs related to distress and trauma in past relationships.
  • Programs for women within prison could assist women to draw upon each other’s strengths as they manage the incarceration and engage in post-release planning.
  • Association with other parolees after release should be considered on a case by case basis, as a potential source of support rather than a violation.

Actual and perceived stigma toward ex-inmates can have a debilitating effect on women’s efforts to “keep trying” to meet society’s expectations.

  • Pre-release classes could provide women avenues for articulating their fears and discuss the venues where women will be expected to disclose their ex-inmate status (e.g. job interviews, housing applications, etc.).
  • Reentry programs could make use of women’s ability to be mutually supportive in assisting each other to address some of the issues for managing stigma.
  • Public education efforts could include social marketing and media strategies to put a human face on rehabilitation programs and women who are successful in their reentry.

Substance abuse is a primary issue in women’s involvement in the criminal justice system. Treatment needs to be part of any comprehensive response to women, but women’s entry into treatment is further complicated by the lack of child care, inadequate social support systems, and lack of financial resources.

  • Expand the availability of drug treatment both within and outside the criminal justice system that is connected to a continuum of care in the community after release.
  • Make welfare and education benefits available for persons convicted of a drug felony so they can build the skills necessary to secure employment with livable wages.
  • Create state-financed alternatives to incarceration for women convicted of drug offenses.

One of the indicators for a woman “making it” after release from prison is her ability to secure and keep employment. Parole violations and new crimes are often committed because reentering prisoners lack the skills and supports to adapt to community life. Many are unable to find employment not only because they lack significant work histories and work skills, but also due to the societal stigma related to their criminal and substance use histories. Typically, time spent in prison has weakened family and community ties. Without means of financial support or family and community networks, women released from prison are at high risk of returning to crime to support themselves.

  • Ensure that women released from prison have proper documentation so they can apply for transitional benefits and unsubsidized employment.
  • Ensure vocational training in and out of prison that is tied to viable labor market opportunities.
  • Educate ex-inmates about their rights and potential employers about the illegality and consequences of improperly rejecting job applicants with criminal records. Assist employers to understand how they can address their concerns about “negligent hiring.”
  • Educate potential employers and employees about the Federal Bonding Program that offers employers who hire ex-offenders bonding insurance that protects them from theft, larceny, or embezzlement.
  • Identify sources of transitional income that will assist women to participate in secondary and post-secondary educational programs to enhance their competitiveness in the job market.
  • Link women during their incarceration with job training centers in the communities to which they will be returning.

To improve reentry prospects of women in the transition from prison to home, and to ensure greater public safety, changes are needed that serve to delay or deny women ex-inmates access to vital social benefits, including grants or loans for education, transitional financial assistance, subsidized housing and viable employment. There have been billions of dollars spent for policing, surveillance, and prison construction but little investment in developing restorative structures for justice and accountability. Effectively responding to negative behaviors requires a commitment to social and economic justice as well as safety.

Senators Leahy & Collins Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Combat Youth Homelessness and Trafficking

Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Leahy2009[1]Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) recently reintroduced bipartisan legislation to curb youth homelessness, which affects 1.6 million teens throughout the country who are among the most likely to become victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) joined as original bill cosponsors.

The winter snowstorms in the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions currently threatening the safety of thousands of Americans spotlight the importance of passing this bipartisan bill to ensure that homeless children are not left to face such challenges alone. Leahy said:

Homelessness is on the rise for youths and young adults. Too many young people around the country find themselves without safe places to sleep at night. These programs, offering outreach and early intervention for runaway and homeless teens, are the last line of defense for teens in crisis. Youth homelessness also can be a pipeline to chronic homelessness, victimization, sexual exploitation and trafficking in urban and rural communities. It’s our job in Congress to do what we can to counter this tragic reality, this scandal in the shadows.

“I am proud to say that last year, 95% of teens receiving services from the Vermont Coalition for Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs were able to exit to safe living situations.

Today, 39% of the homeless population is under the age of 18, and the average age at which a teen becomes homeless is 14.7 years old. A 2013 study by  Convenant House offers startling details about the connection between youth homelessness and human trafficking.

The Leahy-Collins Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act reauthorizes programs that help youth obtain housing, education and job training. The bill includes training for service providers to identify victims of trafficking, and it includes a new provision that prohibits grantees from denying services based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sen_Susan_Collins_official[1]Leahy and Collins introduced similar legislation last year, which earned bipartisan support in the Judiciary Committee but stalled in the Senate. Leahy has long been a champion of youth services provided by the original Runaway and Homeless Youth Protection Act and fought for its reauthorization in 1998 and again in 2003. He has also worked for years to counter the tragedy of human trafficking, most recently by including a reauthorization of the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Act as part of his Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act in 2013, and by supporting increased appropriations for trafficking victims under last year’s Omnibus Appropriations Bill.

Collins said:

As Chairman of the Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, one of my goals is to address chronic homelessness. We must make sure our nation’s homeless youth have the same opportunity to succeed as other youth. The programs reauthorized by this bill are critical in helping homeless youth stay off the street and find stable, sustainable housing.

The bill is supported by the National Network for Youth, the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, the True Colors Fund, the Center for American Progress, and the Human Rights Campaign, among many others.

Reforming Juvenile Justice Requires Belief in People’s Capacity to Change

With youth crime rates and numbers of incarcerated youths declining, now is the perfect time to review how juvenile incarceration meets the needs of youths, their families and society. A recent study by the Justice Policy Institute reports that incarcerating a youth can cost $148,767 per year, and the most recent Juvenile Residential Facility Census found that 66,322 people under the age of 21 reside in 2,111 facilities in the U.S., ranging from 26 youngsters in Vermont to 10,908 kids in California. That is a lot of money to pay for incarceration practices that likely increase the risk of recidivism.

California is in the process of allocating $80 million in funding for counties to build juvenile facilities. To ensure that these facilities are rehabilitative, they need to originate from a belief in the capacity for people to change. Psychologists refer to this belief as “mindset.” It is a well-established phenomenon in education and is equally applicable to our juvenile justice system.

Mindset applies to everyone. Despite the adverse economic and social backgrounds many incarcerated youth come from, do policymakers believe that, given the right guidance, youths can learn to make better decisions? Do youths believe that, given the right tools, they can develop new skills to help them succeed? Psychologists have been investigating whether both students and their teachers can develop this positive mindset. The outcomes of interventions designed to achieve this are encouraging.

Parental mindset has been shown to be influential in motivational frameworks for even very young children; parents who praise the effort required to learn and succeed encourage those values. Researchers have shown that increasing a belief in the ability to change reduces aggression as retaliation in adolescents by 40%; believing that negative traits are not fixed results in less punitive views towards assailants.

Expectations affect educational outcomes

Examples of successful educational programs are underpinned by a theory of change that target not just students and teachers, but also families and communities. Furthermore, it is well documented that expectations affect educational outcomes and that assumptions based on stereotypes or cultural misunderstanding may contribute to racial disparity in academic achievement. Looking at consequences of previous juvenile justice practices highlights why fostering a positive mindset is crucial in our treatment of juveniles.

In Susan Mdden Lankford’s book Born, Not Raised: Voices From Juvenile Hall, Dr. Diane Campbell is quoted as saying: “A good enough someone” is needed in a youth’s life.” Empathy, curiosity, further desire for learning all stem from this connection.

In California’s last round of funding for juvenile facilities, all 14 counties that applied for funding received it — hardly a competitive process. Most counties added beds to their existing juvenile halls or camps, or simply replaced existing facilities, thereby perpetuating existing flaws in our juvenile justice system. Addressing previous weaknesses, the revised funding application now requires stronger justification of how facilities will be rehabilitative and includes an appendix on best rehabilitative practices.

Antonia Cartwright, a postgraduate fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, based in San Francisco, says:

I have visited a facility built with 2009 funding and the lack of accountability is concerning. Applications receive points for the rehabilitative programing proposed. Yet while new facilities may be funded based on these prospective accounts, state officials do not ensure these promises are fulfilled.

“While facilities such as day reporting or education centers are eligible for this funding, and perhaps better reflect the rehabilitative aims of our juvenile justice system, residential facilities still dominate. It is therefore imperative that they are held to high rehabilitative standards.

A vast body of research details the components of rehabilitative practices, not limited to non-institutional furnishings, bathroom privacy, small-group living arrangements and opportunities for therapeutic physical and leisure recreation. Programming should meet specific needs of different populations, such as girls, and include treatment, education and skill-building that acknowledge difficult backgrounds.

Cartwright adds:

Looking to fields outside criminal justice for innovative strategies can build new pathways to success. That is why it is important that policymakers come from diverse backgrounds and foster relationships with practitioners, researchers and advocates.

It is not enough to simply roll out new facilities and programs, nor to expect youths to engage in pro-social behavior because they have been told to; they must believe they can. Criminal justice leaders must not only provide the tools to facilitate change; they must believe youths can succeed. A reform of thinking may be required before meaningful juvenile justice reform can be achieved.

Since 2000, Incarceration Rate for White Women Has Soared by 47%

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Since 2000, the incarceration rate for women has increased by 20% and the rate for white women increased by 47%, while for white men it rose only 8.5 %. Hispanic women and men showed a similar disparity of increase: 23.3% for women and 2.2%  for men.  Surprisingly, incarceration rates for African-American women decreased by more than 30 % (while rates for black men also showed a decrease of almost 10%).


There are several theories explaining  these disparities. Most notably, changes in drug-sentencing policy contributed to change in female incarceration. In many states, statistics show an increase in prescription drug use and methamphetamine offenses among white and Latino women as contributing to their incarceration rates. In New York, 99% of the decline in female drug offenders was seen in black and Hispanic women.

The uniqueness of what leads these women to prison is also what makes solutions to their reentry into society that much more difficult, and increases the chances of repeat offenses.

While the need for drug treatment is apparent, the issues which lead to the drug use also have to be addressed. These women need extensive mental health counseling, education and job training, just to name a few. The availability of programs is far from guaranteed, and the quality varies from state to state – both of which are dependent on funding, which has been reduced. Access to health care (both inside of prison and out) also plays a key part in reversing the trend. Life expectancy for poor, uneducated white women has decreased by five years, in the only group that has seen a decline.

Solutions to problems as complex as these will not come quickly. Small changes, such as increased counseling in prison, behavioral therapy and allowing women to serve their sentences in facilities that make it easier for them to maintain contact with their children have happened in varying degrees. Nevertheless, the increased incarceration of women should ring alarm bells throughout society, as this will have a ripple effect for generations.

The 1980s were a time of widespread, severe tough-on-crime laws, which ushered in an era of mandatory-sentencing and three-strikes laws. At the start of the decade, approximately 13,000 women were in prison, representing 4%  of inmates in state and federal prisons. Over the next 20 years, the rates of incarceration accelerated, with the rate of increase for women surpassing that of men in the same time period. By 2010, women represented 7%  of the prison population.

Most of the more than 200,000 women currently in prison are there for non-violent offenses. A quarter of women in prison are there because of drug-related crimes (compared with only 17%  of the male population). The remaining female non-violent crimes include DUIs, robbery and property related crimes (all of which could be related to drugs). The war on drugs and related enforcement policies directly contribute to the increase in the numbers of women.

Though, some of it is just plain old sexism. Women are often arrested as an accomplice to a partner who is involved in criminal activity, like being a drug dealer. As is common in criminal cases, leniency in sentencing is offered in exchange for information on those higher up the food chain or details on the operation. The problem is, the woman is just the girlfriend and may not have much, or any, information to exchange; there’s a glass ceiling in criminal enterprises, too. Her boyfriend, however, would be more directly involved and be able to negotiate a deal. In the end, he could end up serving less time than her, even though he is guilty of a greater number of offenses. This is symptomatic of other issues contributing to women entering prison at alarming rates.

The policies driving the increase in the female prison population have a greater impact on the most vulnerable. The majority of these women have not finished high school, which means they were less likely to be employed when arrested. The vast majority of incarcerated women reported a history of physical and sexual abuse prior to incarceration, with 25% reporting the abuse occurring while they were minors. They are also more likely than the general population to suffer from mental health issues.

Needless to say, abused and unemployed people with psychological issues are not strong with coping skills. Nearly 75% of incarcerated women reported using drugs regularly prior to their arrest, with 40% of them under the influence at the time. This leads to risky behavior, like theft to support their habit, and relationships with abusive men – who are probably participating in criminal activity – like dealing drugs.

As with everything in America, race matters. More than 60% of the total prison population is African-American or Latino. In 2000, black women were incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. Law enforcement policies that targeted poor minority communities led to dramatic increases in arrests. Mandatory sentencing laws also directly affected these women since nearly two-thirds of the women have had prior convictions.

In an unexpected twist, changes in policies are contributing to the increase in female prisoners and changing the racial makeup of the population.

After three decades of tough-on-crime tactics, advocacy groups, legislators and researchers have learned that these policies do little in curbing incarceration rates and have only led to prison overcrowded with a large number of people who have committed nonviolent crimes. The decrease in violent crimes and an increase in initiatives that have focused on treatment for addiction, reduced sentencing for participation in prison programs and increased in reentry support have slowed the growth of incarceration since 2000 – except for women.