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Women's Life Behind Bars: Punishment or Reform?


The fastest growing population in the American prison system is women; over 950,000 women are currently under some form of correctional supervision. Some prison reform advocates say time behind bars may pay the inmates' debt to society, but society is the loser in the long run, they add, because of the often devastating effect incarceration has on female prisoners' families.

After finishing a book on a last chance high school in New York City for troubled teen girls, journalist Christina Rathbone set her sights on the next stop for many of those young women: prison. She spent the next five years interviewing female inmates at MCI Framingham prison in Massachusetts.

"MCI Framingham, where I did my research, is the oldest running prison for women in America," she says. "It was the perfect location to spend some time because I could tell, through spending time there, the whole history of women in prison in this country, as well as some of the stories of women who are in prison today."

Rathbone says she found many aspects of life behind bars familiar. "Like any building being lived in by 500 to 600 women, it was really a space of women getting together, trying to help each other, perhaps falling into rather bitter cliques," she says. "But certainly not a place where women were attacking each other or threatening each other, the way so often happens in men prisons. This comes from the reality that almost none of them are violent offenders. More than two-thirds of men are incarcerated for crimes against people and property, like theft, assault, murder and so forth. The same amount of women, more than two-thirds, are incarcerated for crimes that have to do with bringing pain and injury only to themselves, crimes related to sex abuse and drug abuse."

She was surprised to learn that most of the women at Framingham were the primary caretakers of their children. "The fact that they have been locked up for often long sentences for these minor, nonviolent crimes means that their children are left without any caretaker at all," she says. "So not only are we punishing the mothers for their questionable choices, but we're also punishing the generation after them."

In her book, A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars, Rathbone puts a human face on the statistics and provides often heart-breaking portraits of the women she came to know. "The main character in my book, a woman I call Denise, had a 9-year-old son when she was sent away. And he was 14 by the time she was released," she says. "When she was sent away, he was a normal little boy who loved Beanie Babies and ice hockey. By the time she got out, he had been abused by his father, with whom he went to live, removed from his father's care and placed in foster care. There, he was moved around from place to place, and abused, and stolen from, until finally, in a desperate bid for attention, he started to shoplift. By the time Denise finally got out for her five years for her non-violent first-time offense, her own son was in the juvenile facility serving time for shoplifting himself."

"What really concerns me more than anything is the ability of these women to take care of their children," says Massachusetts State Representative Kay Khan, a strong advocate for protecting inmates' mother-child relationships.

Representative Khan has been working on a number of bills that would provide female inmates with the knowledge and means they need to stay in touch with their children. "While they are in prison, the children could have the opportunity to stay with their mothers, and mothers can learn how to bond with their children and how to take care of them, and learn the things that are needed in order to continue to care for their children when they leave the prison," she says. "This, I think, can help them recognize what they might need to be doing and thinking about in the future, rather than going back to the life they were in before they came into the criminal justice system."

Author Christina Rathbone says sometimes, something as simple as a free phone call can make a huge difference for children. "Most people in prison can only make collect calls from prison," she says. "That means that if their child is in the foster care system, they can never call their children because no state agency accepts collect calls. Many of the children I met and spoke with didn't really understand why it was that their mothers couldn't come home. And more troubling, didn't understand why their mothers couldn't call them on their birthday or at holidays."

Rathbone says while it's crucial to maintain the bond between mothers behind bars and children outside prison, any effort to reform the current criminal justice system must look beyond the end of the women's sentences. "Too large a segment of our population believes that offering education to people in prison is a waste of money, when it has actually been proven time and time again in studies that it costs infinitely less money to educate someone in prison and then have them released and not return to prison than to do nothing with them in there and have them just come right back," she says, "because it costs an average of about $40,000 a year to hold someone in prison in this country. $40,000 a year! That's more than it costs to go to Harvard and we're getting nothing for it, not even a high school diploma."

Rathbone says these women came into prison under-employed, but if they're given the appropriate educational and training opportunities, they will leave prison with options for making a decent living - and life - for themselves and their children

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