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DSA In the News

Cramped quarters - Officials, female inmates made due with aging facility

 | Published on 2/22/2011


Cassaundra’s young son didn’t want to play dominoes when visiting his mom in jail last week. There was no room. Cassaundra, a 32-year-old mother of five who declined to give a last name, was squeezed in a visiting room the size of a closet with four of her children playing card games like Old Maid during their weekly hour get-together. Despite the joy of seeing her children, saying good-bye can be tough. When time was up, the 3-year-old would say, “Come on Mama, let’s go.” Also tough is the cramped quarters used by inmates in the Women’s Correctional Facility on Maple Street in Redwood City. Mothers with large families sometimes must split visits to accommodate all the children. There are no diaper tables. No rest room. In sharp contrast next door is the women’s transitional facility, a smaller building with services to which sentenced inmates must apply and qualify. Pink sweats instead of orange, although the word “prisoner” is still quite discernible along the leg. The wearing of one’s own shoes instead of plastic Croc-like footwear. An open courtyard for Tai Chi and visits, not to mention a menagerie of chickens who roost in the aptly-named “henitentiary” coop. In its confines, too, inmates gather at a long table to talk about their problems, their addictions and how to cope when released back outside. Unlike the more traditional communal day room next door, the programs do not have to fight for space with the vocabulary class, the laundry, the meal times, the medical care and the transitional interviews. In essence, the transitional facility is a step up. And, if county and law enforcement officials see their hopes born out in a new jail facility, it is a step in the right direction for San Mateo County, for gender-specific programming and for incarceration in a jail where mothers can touch their children and services don’t fall short of offerings to male counterparts. When children visit mothers here, it is different, inmates say. “It’s not, I’m going to see Mommy in jail. It’s I’m going to see Mommy,” said Alicia Talavera, a 30-year-old South San Francisco woman serving time since November for not paying earlier restitution. Although crimes may be the same when written in black and white, how those perpetrators are treated is a much more gray area. Women are more social, tend to commit less violent crimes and a majority have substance abuse problems even if that is not the primary reason for incarceration. The most recent numbers for San Mateo County estimate 89 percent of female inmates have abuse issues and 22 percent are also diagnosed with mental health needs. Critics mocked female inmates and incarceration as softer when Martha Stewart went behind bars but in many ways it is true, said Lt. Lisa Williams, who headed the women’s facility between 2007 and 2010. Women tend to be the caretakers; when men are incarcerated, women will bring children to visit. The same doesn’t necessarily work in reverse. Many women have trauma-related issues and, unlike men, tend to form social cliques within a day of entering jail. The coping skills they require may be different than those for men. The need for both improved space and programs and services aimed at women are dovetailing as San Mateo County moves toward building a new jail at Chemical Way in Redwood City. On March 4, county and nonprofit officials will revisit the idea of gender-based programming, checking in on lessons learned and goals met since the first women’s criminal justice summit in 2007. Panels will talk about alternatives to jail and how to transition women back into the community in ways that prevent recidivism. Up to and beyond the summit, now that the county has settled on where to build a jail, it must now figure out how to build — how big, how much and how much emphasis on rehabilitation. This is an opportunity to build a facility around the county’s needs rather than trying to fit desired programs and services into a pre-existing space, said Lt. Deborah Bazan, who heads the jail planning unit. ‘Hope Inside’ Some of what they want is already visible in the existing women’s jail. “Our hope is to expand on the successes here,” said County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier who spearheaded the summit and work on women’s programs. One program, “Hope Inside” is evident in the transitional facility as inmates discuss coping skills and the issues that landed them there in the first place. The addiction doesn’t have to be drugs or alcohol; it could be simply the chaos, the hustle and drama of life, said licensed therapist Ruby Cvetan-Ross who led the women in talks. The goal is not to be perfect and completely removed from the problems but, realistically, to reduce harm and make better decisions. The average length of stay in 2010 was 34 days and some participants are in work furlough programs, sending them off to jobs during the day and back to the facility at night. Others learn cooking skills, study for their GED or practice typing. Paper hearts — remnants from Valentine’s Day — dot the walls and on top of a VCR in the corner lies a copy of “Eclipse.” Above the door, a credo: “Wish it, dream it, do it.” In comparison, inmates across the way in the correctional facility are locked into dorms with triple bunks unless they are in the communal space that acts as program catch-all and leads to a small outside patio where the sound of the nearby highway hums. The facility is for the women’s punishment but the transitional building is also for their future. Feels like hope Krista Fortenberry, 22, is counting down the days until she is done serving time for what she classifies as theft. Stuck with a felony, a criminal strike and an admitted fear of how prospective employers will judge her, Fortenberry said she’d learned how to deal with life and her upcoming transition. She has her GED, College of San Mateo credit for an advanced vocabulary class and plans. She initially balked at moving over because she opted for the substance abuse program Choices. Once she changed, though, Fortenberry wondered what took her so long. Fortenberry said the transitional facility and its skill-building program feels like a family — and feels like hope. Two different relatives told her during phone calls, “You sound so much happier.” The women rally around one another, helping and cheering those who don’t get regular visits. “It just feels lighter and brighter over here,” Cassaundra said. While this may not sound like the appropriate end of a crime, officials say it is more beneficial to the women and to society than simply housing them for their sentence. Children of women in jail are five times more like to end up in custody themselves, said Sheriff Greg Munks. Offering ‘a better environment’ While officials focus on what programs they want to offer or expand for women inmates, they are also looking forward to a modern space in which to house them. “This is a facility that’s obsolete. We want to offer a better environment,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Hanlon. The women’s jail was designed in 1976 and built in 1980. Although rated for 85 inmates, it currently houses 112 women which — as with its male counterpart — risks the county for lawsuits for overcrowding. Ceiling panels sit askew and the glass in no-contact visiting rooms is scratched. A room formerly used for sobering up is now a changing area because it doesn’t meet standards. The small inmate patio can be the scene of confrontation when crowded. The area around the building isn’t much better. Heavy rains make the choppy gravel road even more treacherous and flood from the salt flats even killed a jail bus. The building’s design also led to disparities between male and female inmates. Before the transitional facility opened, women leaving for work furlough had to be strip searched for contraband every time they returned. The women also don’t have a space to house animals so cannot participate in TAILS, a program with the humane society in which male inmates train dogs prior to their adoption. A new jail — currently planned for more than 700 beds and several stories — will offer room to equalize treatment and expand transitional programs for both men and women, officials said. But by then, Cassaundra, Talavera, Fortenberry and other women in the current programs might have proof of their success — they won’t be back.