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Women are the biggest growing prison population in the US. But what is the cause of this tremendous growth in female prison population and what infrastructure has been put in place to deal with such an influx? Al Jazeera investigates in California, one of the most overcrowded places in the world for inmates.
In 2010, California confirmed it had 160,000 people in its prisons, that’s double the state’s capacity. Extremely harsh laws and penalties have been inherited from the 1980’s, when California was famously tackling the “drugs wars”. One of the weapons to target drug cartels was to introduce increasingly tough penalties for drug related crimes, even low-level crimes such as possession carry lengthy sentences. These laws have never been rescinded, meaning that thousands of Californians are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. This has lead to a crisis in over-crowding in California’s prisons. But this impact is sorely felt by California’s women, who are the largest growing demographic in the state’s prison system.
In the last three decades, the US female prison population has grown by about 800%, almost double the rate of men. Low-level drug crimes swept thousands of women into the prison system, some receiving 6-10 year sentences for the possession of small amount of drugs. After being ordered to slash its inmate population by 30,000 inmates, the California authorities took drastic measures. However, instead of reviewing the overly harsh penal system, the state decided to transform a women’s prison into a men’s facility, transferring 1,000 female inmates to the already-overcrowded . and transferred 1,000 inmates to the already over-crowded Central California Women’s facility (CCWF). It seems that in a bid to ease over crowding, measures were taken to redistribute the men and as such, the over-crowding of female inmates rapidly deteriorated.
In CCWF, women sleep 8 per cell, twice the intended capacity. Misty Rojo, a former prisoner and prisoner’s advocate said that when she was incarcerated, she would talk with her fellow inmates about how many women would die if there was a fire in the building, simply because the overcrowding was so severe. The level of over-crowding has reached a critical point and reports have been made that inmates have died due to a lack of access to simple medical treatment.
But instead of longstanding laws on drugs, many think that the growth in female inmates is a result of a war on poverty. Lawyers and prisoner’s rights activists know of women who have been sentenced to six years in prison for stealing tights for an interview. Clearly Californians are being overly punished for low-level crimes, but what one considerable side-effect to the over-incarceration has received little attention, what happens to the children of the women who find themselves in prison. Women are being imprisoned in facilities sometimes up to 200 miles away from the family home, in some cases women are even transferred to another, they have little to no contact with those children and have played a minimal role in their upbringing upon their release.
California State Governor Jerry Brown introduced a criminal justice system realignment that was supposed to encourage rehabilitation over incarceration. However, one of the concerns is that the prisons system acts as somewhat of an anchor for the Californian economy, providing jobs in construction as well as those hired to manage and secure the prisons once they’re up and running. As a result, it seems unlikely that prisons will be rapidly descaled. What California needs is a critical review of its legal system and penal code to reflect the reality the present day context, rather than clinging on to outdated laws, designed to tackle a drugs war that no longer exists.
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