As more women go to prison in U.S., institutions struggle to adapt
By MARTIGA LOHN
Associated Press Writer
SHAKOPEE, Minnesota- Once the thin blue mattress rolls out from under the single bed, the prison cell is sleepover-ready.
The trundle bed is the best thing Suzanne Locke has here. Along with good behavior, it allows her to host her 6-year-old daughter, Marae, for monthly overnight visits during her 12-year sentence for arson in the state prison for women.
"She's my saving grace," said Locke, 26, who says she was high on methamphetamine four years ago when she set fire to a house and a trailer home over unpaid drug debts. "This little girl loves me. She's got me up on this huge pedestal, and I've got to live up to her standards."
Women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, a trend fueled by their growing involvement in drug crimes and by longer sentences in general. But once behind bars, their needs are often overlooked because of tight budgets and the attention given to sex offenders and death-row inmates, advocates say.
Prison and jail officials from around the country are to gather this weekend in Bloomington, Minnesota, to address the rising number of incarcerated women - more than 180,000 in prisons and jails nationwide, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The conference on adult and juvenile female offenders - which has been held every two years since 1985 _ will bring 500 people together, including juvenile detention workers, probation officers and some who provide community services to inmates.
Until recently, prisons have emphasized making sure women get treatment, work and education offerings comparable to male inmates. What works better, advocates say, is to tailor programs specifically to women.
"They need to focus more on learning healthy relationships and developing the skills to navigate through the messy lives they've been enveloped in," said Louise Wolfgramm, president of Amicus, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that serves criminal offenders.
Since 1995, the number of women in state and federal prisons has swelled more than 50 percent, outstripping an increase of about 32 percent for men. Female jail populations are growing even faster.
Most are mothers. Between 66 and 90 percent have children, depending on the type of institution. When a mother is locked up, her children usually end up in foster care or living with a relative other than their father. By contrast, most children with imprisoned fathers stay with their mothers.
Advocates say programs that help mothers behind bars to maintain relationships with their children are key to reducing crime over the long run.
In prison, mother-child time is usually fleeting. At Shakopee, pregnant inmates go to a local hospital to give birth and then return to prison without the baby. Some women lose parental rights while they're serving time.
The first time Locke's mother and Marae made the 450-mile (720-kilometer) round trip to visit, Locke struggled to explain her prison sentence to her daughter, then a toddler. Locke will be eligible for release after serving six years and four months.
Locke - whose honey-brown hair now reaches her shoulder blades - told Marae she would come home when her hair grew down to her bottom.
"She used to come into the visiting room every month and the first thing she'd want to do, before she hugged me, was check my hair to see, you know, can mommy come home yet," Locke said.
The 24-hour visits start Friday afternoon. Saturdays are bittersweet.
"She wakes up and then it's, 'Today's Saturday, huh, mom,'" Locke said. "Some days she can leave with a hug and a kiss, `See you next month, mommy - call me on Sunday.' Other times my mom literally has to pull her off of me."
The Shakopee program isn't the only one of its kind.
Women's prisons in New York, Nebraska, Ohio and Washington let inmates who meet certain requirements live with their newborns, typically until the child is about 18 months old. An Indiana prison offers summer day camp for children and mothers. A facility in Vermont hosts a Head Start program that brings female offenders, children and caregivers together regularly.
More prison systems also are starting to use female-oriented treatment programs that focus on healing from traumatic experiences, said Maureen Buell, a National Institute of Corrections specialist who helps prisons with programs for female offenders.
At Shakopee, women can participate in classes on depression, grief and anger management. A boot camp program for nonviolent female offenders in northern Minnesota holds group meetings where women talk about important relationships in their lives and how to deal with them when they're released.
Currently, seven states and the federal Bureau of Prisons have policy specialists focused on female offenders, Buell said. But there is always competition for funding.
"When competing interests are things like death-row inmates and capital punishment and sex offenders, it's very difficult to say, excuse me, this chunk of the population is really important," says Mary Scully Whitaker, an organizer of the five-day conference. "It's shortsighted. Women respond well to treatment."