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More women entering prisons in U.S.

Thursday - 1/2/2014, 4:36pm  ET

LUCY WESTCOTT, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - Anna Davis spent four months this year in the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup, where she said she found herself in the same living pod as an inmate who raped another woman with a curling iron.

Pamela Griffith, now a psychology student, was imprisoned there several years ago after being convicted of theft. She had similar concerns about being housed with inmates from multiple security levels.

"There's no way to physically separate the lifers from the others … These women have nothing to lose," Griffith said.

Women are entering the U.S. prison system at a faster rate than any other group, and they face an array of issues that male inmates don't, including pregnancy and higher rates of mental health issues stemming from the tangled web of trauma, homelessness, and sexual abuse. Drugs are often a way to cope.

Seventy-four percent of women in state prisons have mental health issues, compared to 55 percent of men, according to data from the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group for prison reform. Women often have a higher rate of mental illness because many have experienced sexual and physical abuse starting as children and continuing into adulthood, said Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

"Too often, people do not receive the type of treatment they need in prison," Fettig said.

Maryland saw a 353 percent increase in women going to prison from 1977 to 2004, according to data from the Women's Prison Association. But that figure pales in comparison to the staggering rates of states such as Montana, which saw the highest increase in the country during that time at 23,550 percent.

"We do know that the women's population is growing at a higher rate than the men's population since the 1980s," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.

"The women's increase is about 50 percent higher than the men's," he said. Women in prison now make up 7 percent of inmates across the country, Mauer said.

WOMEN IN PRISON

Black inmates tend to be overrepresented in Maryland's male prisons and the national justice system in general. But at Jessup, the difference is not as stark, with white and black women entering at roughly the same rate.

On average, black inmates make up nearly 72 percent of all inmates in the state prison system, both male and female, whereas white inmates make up 27 percent. Maryland's black population is 30 percent.

But in Jessup, black female inmates make up nearly 53 percent of the population, and white inmates make up 46 percent. Inmates of Indian, Asian and unknown races make up nearly 1 percent.

Drug-related offenses and longer prison terms — handed out due to policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and Three Strikes laws — are the two most significant factors in sending more women to prison, particularly white females.

"I think for white women in some states, not all, as methamphetamines and prescription drug crimes have become more numerous… the defendants are far more likely to be white or Latino, rather than African-American," Mauer said.

PREGNANT INMATES

There are between 5,000 and 10,000 pregnant female inmates in the U.S. every year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Maryland is one of 32 states where some facilities continue to use some form of restraint on women during transportation, pregnancy and birth. Maryland House Bill 829, an anti-shackling bill that sought to standardize the use of restraints across the state, did not pass during the 2013 legislative session, but is being reintroduced in 2014.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs Jessup and the Baltimore City Detention Center, enacted a policy in April 2012 that prevents the restraining of inmates during labor, delivery and post-delivery. There is an exception if the inmate poses a safety risk to herself or others, or if she's likely to escape.

"Current DPSCS policy does not allow for restraint of an inmate/detainee during labor, delivery, or immediate post-delivery recuperation, except for at the request of attending medical personnel and/or the hospital," said Mark Vernarelli, director of public information at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, in an email.

Jessup doesn't allow waist restraints and chains, but a hospital's protocols mean an inmate could be handcuffed to a wheelchair.

"We do not restrain inmates unless the hospital orders it. It's the hospital that would require this, presumably in an emergency situation. Our policy is that pregnant inmates are not restrained," Vernarelli said.

It's the local jails in Maryland that have problems with shackling, Vernarelli said. The state-level department that runs Jessup has no control over the policies of the county jails, which have varying approaches to the restraining of pregnant inmates.

Delegate Aisha Braveboy, D-Prince George's, one of the co-sponsors of the original bill banning the practice, said it would ensure a standardized policy that would apply to all facilities and could not be changed by a new administration.

"Even though the state has a policy, the next administration could have something very different," Braveboy said.

Paris Turner gave birth in 1993 while an inmate at Jessup, before the new policy. After being convicted of theft at six months pregnant, she was sentenced to six months in prison.

"I was on drugs, using cocaine and marijuana. The judge thought he was doing the best thing," Turner said.

Now a housekeeper at two Baltimore hotels, she was handcuffed during transportation to her pre-natal appointments and during the appointments. In the ambulance after her water broke, Turner was handcuffed by her foot to the bed.

At the hospital, handcuffs were replaced by restraints around one arm and one leg. A female guard was on watch at all times, and refused to remove the restraints at the doctor's request.

"Cuff her, uncuff her, cuff her, uncuff her. It was so much. It was embarrassing," Turner said.

"I remember the doctor being angry because he was trying to take care of his patient," she said.

Turner was kept on a "long chain" attached to her bed following her son's birth so she could change him and spend time with him.

The public needs to have more access to information about the varying policies of restraint use, said Jacqueline Robarge, director of Power Inside, a Baltimore- based re-entry group that serves formerly incarcerated women.

"Even if they only have one pregnancy per year, or one pregnancy per five years, we really don't want this happening to anyone, ever, because of the enduring trauma," Robarge said.

CO-MINGLING

Maryland is not the only state with just one female prison. Connecticut, Delaware and West Virginia also have a single women's-only prison, according to a 2000 Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The Maryland Correctional Institute for Women at Jessup has 765 female inmates, according to data from an April 2013 inmate characteristic report.

Overall, there are 854 women in the state corrections system, including women in the Baltimore City Detention Center for women, the Patuxent Institution, an intensive treatment facility that includes male and female inmates, and the Central Home Detention Unit, which monitors women in their homes.

The other states with a single female prison also house inmates from all security levels: minimum, medium and maximum. There have been concerns among prison reformers and former inmates about the safety and treatment of women who are in lower security levels in these situations.

"Because we only have that one prison for females, you sleep next to people who are murderers," Davis said.

The housing of multiple security levels is not unique and also happens in male prisons, Vernarelli wrote in an email.

"The populations are separated and there are no issues with this standard practice," Vernarelli wrote.

One-fifth of Jessup inmates are in prison for murder, and nearly 20 percent for larceny, according to the April 2013 report. Another fifth were charged with drug offenses.

"If you only have one women's prison, the default would become the most secure level because there might be some number of women who require that, so everybody's bumped up," Mauer said.

REHABILITATION

While many prisons try to help inmates through rehabilitation programs, some women find few opportunities available.

Vernarelli points to the prison's GED program, behavior management classes and Sew Shop, where inmates make the red, black and yellow flags that fly at state facilities across Maryland.

But for Griffith, the lack of college courses available to her was a frustrating aspect of prison life.

"There were no opportunities for me there," Griffith said, although she did start the prison's Wiccan group, which had around 10 members by the time she left. Griffith, who takes online classes at the University of Maryland, University College, was in the prison from November 2009 until January 2011.

Griffith, a former accountant and chief financial officer who had been in prison twice before, found that there were few chances to better herself once she was inside, especially at the age of 52.

"Maryland punishes you, but it doesn't rehabilitate you," Griffith said.

(Copyright 2014 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)