Since 1978, the number of women in California prisons has increased 900 percent, outpacing the jump in male incarcerations and helping make California's prison population one of the largest in the nation-at 173,000 inmates, that's 73,000 more than what the state's existing detention facilities can hold.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for more prisons to accommodate even more inmates-the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has said it will need an additional 51,069 beds during the next 15 years to house its male prisoners. As for California's nearly 12,000 female prisoners, roughly one-third-women considered low-risk who've been charged with nonviolent crimes-would be moved to so-called female rehabilitative community correctional centers, or FRCCCs. These facilities would, according to the state, hold no more than 200 women at a time and would be located in or within 25 miles of an urban center, with the first several expected to open in April 2008. One of them would be sited in San Diego County, though the exact location is unknown.
The idea for these smaller women's prisons is part of an overall paradigm shift in how the prison system meets, or doesn't meet, the needs of female inmates. California incarcerates women within a system that's designed to handle its primary client base, men. Two years ago, the Department of Corrections organized the Gender Responsive Strategies Commission, an advisory group established to address issues affecting women in prison. According to a report released in August by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, "While the number of prison beds has multiplied, other responses to women's crime have not." More than half of women prisoners, the report says, suffered abuse at some point in their lives, as compared to 16 percent of male prisoners. They tend to be less-educated than their male counterparts, and 64 percent of women prisoners in California have at least one child younger than 18.
The point of FRCCCs is to move short-timers back to their communities so they can be closer to their families. Such a setting, experts say, cuts down on recidivism and makes the transition from prison to parole easier.
As they've been pitched by the state, FRCCCs would include "wraparound" services, like drug and alcohol treatment, educational and vocational training, counseling and medical care.
Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, authored the legislation creating the FRCCCs. Women at these community correctional centers, she told CityBeat, "can access family visitation and also be able to take advantage of services that are in the community. We see that the prisons that are closer to an urban area have a lot of volunteers coming in and have a lot of communication with the community overall. [Compared to] the very remote women's prisons, there is much more of a tie-in between the institution and the community."
More than two-thirds of women prisoners are considered "low-risk" on the prison security-threat scale and, as Lieber pointed out to the Associated Press recently, shouldn't require costly security measures: "The overwhelming majority of women in prison are in for low-level crimes that do not require the sort of expensive, high-security setting we're providing them."
Though the FRCCCs would be privately run, security staff would be employed by the Department of Corrections-an odd public/private relationship that some prison-reform advocates chalk up to the power of the prison guards union, which generally opposes privatization.
As progressive as they might seem, a lot about these small women's prisons has struck a bad chord with opponents who argue that increasing the number of prison beds is too easy an answer to the thorny political issue of prison overcrowding.
"The idea of more prisons is certainly not the solution, especially prisons disguised as community-based programs," said Douglas Oden, head of the San Diego chapter of the NAACP, at a community meeting last month attended by prisoner-rights' activists, drug-treatment specialists and members of other groups with a stake in prison issues.
Opponents of FRCCCs, both here and statewide, argue that:
* There's nothing in the legislation that creates the FRCCCs to guarantee funding for the services these facilities are supposed to provide. "There's money to build the facilities, but is there actually money to do anything in them?" said Craig Gilmore, who works with the group Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). Schwarzenegger has promised more than $50 million for rehabilitative programs for prisoners this year, but Gilmore said he only has to look at past budgets to see the trend in service cuts: "If there are any budget cuts, what gets cut? Not [prison] guard salaries. Programs get cut."
* FRCCCs mask the real issue: The need for sentencing reform and less-punitive means of dealing with drug offenders, the population that will likely fill these facilities. (The increase in the prison population is widely attributed to mandatory-sentencing requirements for drug offenses.) "When my wife says to me, "Your closet's too crowded,' I don't say, "Let's build another closet,'" Gilmore noted.
* These facilities will decentralize a system that's been criticized for its lack of oversight and, most recently, had control of its healthcare system handed over to a federal-court-appointed receiver.
"When a system's in deep crisis, is that the best time to give it more money, more discretion and make it bigger and build more prisons?" said Heidi Strupp, who works for the nonprofit Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
Strupp also participates in the Department of Corrections' Gender Responsive Strategies Commission, and while she gives the state credit for establishing such a group, she remains wary about proposed reforms. The Department of Corrections' "track record of providing constitutionally adequate treatment, let alone services, is woefully inadequate," she said. "I have a lot of concerns that the state agency responsible for punishing people is the best equipped to provide healing rehabilitative services to women."
Opposition to the FRCCCs is well organized despite the scant publicity the issue's received. Civil-rights leaders like Angela Davis and Delores Huerta, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich (author of the acclaimed book Nickel and Dimed) and columnist Katha Pollit, among others, have signed on to a petition that includes signatures from 1,300 women prisoners. Former Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg, who was termed out at the end of 2006, initially co-sponsored an earlier version of the bill that would create the FRCCCs, along with Lieber. But, after hearing from opponents, Goldberg pulled her name from the bill in June, calling it "a fraud... filled with problems." CityBeat was unable to contact Goldberg by press time
But there seem to be some misconceptions about FRCCCs. For instance, opponents say the new prisons will allow less visiting time than mainstream prisons. In fact, FRCCCs, according to the Department of Corrections, will have expanded visiting hours-all day Saturday and Sunday and 7 to 9 p.m. on weekdays.
Lieber emphasized that she's open and willing to meet with opponents of the legislation to hear their concerns. "We anticipate a lot of discussion and give and take of ideas on all sides," she said.
This story was updated on Feb. 7 at 12:30 p.m.