Last week, a strongly worded report by San Diego County's civil grand jury urged the razing and rebuilding of Las Colinas, the county's jail for women. Last fall, the grand jury-an advisory board tasked with evaluating county operations-toured the Santee facility and was 'surprised and appalled,' the report said, by conditions there: buildings in disrepair, overcrowding (the jail holds roughly 300 more women than it should), limited toilet and shower facilities. Living conditions in the jail, the report said, are 'borderline humane.'
Reader comments following the online version of the San Diego Union-Tribune's May 31 story on the report offered a snapshot of how some folks feel about conditions in prisons and jails.
'Do these people think a county jail should be like the Bellagio in Las Vegas?' one reader wanted to know.
'Life is supposed to be rough in prison isn't it?' wrote another.
'Anne' spent three months at Las Colinas recently for a felony DUI. 'Obviously, it's not meant to be a hotel,' she told CityBeat. (She asked us to withhold her real name because she's on probation.) 'Yes, I did break the law. Yes, I did need to be incarcerated. However, I did not need to be degraded, provoked.'
Anne, who's in her 40s, worked as a psychiatric nurse prior to returning to graduate school for a doctorate degree in literature; part of the nursing job had her working with inmates in Northern California.
'The years that I worked as a psychiatric nurse, to me, the ultimate violation is taking someone's dignity,' she said, 'and the minute you walk in-well, the minute I walked in [to Las Colinas]-90 percent of the deputies were intentionally provocative.'
There were small things, like a deputy who told her to stop using 'big words' (her use of 'surreptitiously' set him off) to a female guard who wouldn't give her water to take her medication. For two weeks, two of the three toilets used by the four-dozen women in her unit-some of whom were pregnant-were broken and had overflowed. Another time a deputy told the women that they'd used their allocation of toilet paper the day before and wouldn't be getting any that day. Anne reminded him that that was a violation of the health-and-safety code.
'Yeah, we're in jail. Yes, we've broken the law. That doesn't negate our human rights,' she said. Some of her fellow inmates warned her to shut up, but she got the unit its toilet paper. 'The deputies were so mad,' she laughs. 'They went in and opened the cell and said, ‘Here's your fucking toilet paper.' Boom! And they threw it right at me.'
The San Diego chapter of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners holds a vigil outside Las Colinas three or four times a year and regularly hears complaints from families of inmates, said CCWP outreach coordinator Janice Jordan. 'The number one complaint is medical abuse,' she said. 'Women denied sanitary pads while on their menstrual cycle, denied asthma medicine and denied mental health medication.'
CityBeat has asked the Sheriff's Office for records of inmate complaints but was told that complaints to a law-enforcement agency are exempt under the California Public Records Act.
'They can build a $500 billion new facility, but that's not going to make a difference because of the behavior that goes on,' Anne said. 'It's essentially going to be abuse, mistreatment, degradation in a clean place.'
Jodie Lawston, a professor of sociology at California State University San Marcos, has focused her research on incarcerated women. California's female prison population, she said, is already a vulnerable group.
'They're predominantly women of color.... About 80 percent of them have been physically, sexually or mentally abused, much of that was prior to age 18,' she explained. 'They're also impoverished. Almost 50 percent of them have not graduated high school. When I go in and work with them and interview them, they have no self-esteem, they don't have the skills they'll need when they get out to actually go out and find a job, which is nearly impossible, anyway, because people don't hire former felons. So it's just this cycle. They go right back out into the situation they were in, and they end up back inside.'
Lawston pointed out that the California Department of Corrections recently added 'and Rehabilitation' to the end of its name. Jails are county-run facilities in which stays are short-term-up to a year-so there's little emphasis on rehabilitation. Some of Anne's fellow inmates were hungry to better themselves. They dubbed her 'Professor' and asked about her studies. She encouraged the women to write.
'I gave reading lessons to this one little girl,' she said-a 19-year-old who was illiterate. 'She was just the toughest gang member you could ever see. She came up to me one time when no one was around and said, 'Hey, Professor, you think you could teach me how to read?'
Anne's out of work-the community colleges she was teaching at don't employ felons-and stuck with an ankle bracelet set to monitor her skin perspiration for alcohol consumption, even though her driver's license has been taken away. When a reporter commented that it sounds like she had an impact on some women's lives while at Las Colinas, Anne teared up.
The terms of her probation forbid her to have contact with anyone at the jail.