by Misty Rojo of Justice Now and California Coalition for Women Prisoners
The issue of “gender responsiveness” as an excuse to open more prisons has been rearing its ugly head lately with the expansion of CDCR’s supposed “reentry hubs” and “community based facilities,” totaling 4,090 new beds altogether. Yet one woman in the new Female Community Reentry Facility (FCRF) in McFarland recently called Justice Now, saying she feels like “they were sold a dream”; and other reports from people inside this facility tell of similar, if not worse, conditions than they faced in the California Institute for Women (CIW) or Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF).
Some of those conditions include broken plumbing, lack of sanitary supplies, no jobs or educational opportunities, no reentry services, lack of medical services, and unqualified staff. These are the very conditions California Coalition for Women Prisoners along with imprisoned activists and allies feared people would face, so they quickly organized a rally at the McFarland facility before Aug. 1.
Since the “tough on crime” rhetoric has long since lost its appeal and even the GOP has decided to get “Right on Crime,” those who profit off of prisons have had to regroup and figure out how to continue selling prisons as the social answer to our problems. One of the ways to do that was to claim that they needed a different strategy for women.
As their argument goes, women just need a little extra guidance and fuzzy, friendly cages; we just need to be nicer to our female offenders and recognize their specific needs as women. This was the logic that inaugurated the current era of gender responsive jail and prison expansion. Through the idea of gender responsiveness, the prison regime has appropriated feminist discourse by using the language of “specific needs for women” in order to manipulate the public into favoring prison and jail expansion as “progressive” and necessary for the well-being of women prisoners.
In 2006, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released its “Gender Responsive Strategies Blueprint,” also known as the “Female Offender Master Plan.” (The 2008 version can be viewed here: http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Adult_Operations/FOPS/Female-Offenders-Master-Plan-2008.pdf.) We beat the gender responsive expansion in 2007, yet here we are in 2014 looking at the opening of the very facilities we told decision makers were not in the interests of women locked in California’s prisons no matter what their so-called experts claimed.
Now, I could pick apart the “Master Plan” and point out flaw by flaw how it is not gender justice, I could talk about how it presents women in a weak light as if to say they are likely to be weak minded and follow others into crime, and how that alludes to crimes being committed out of “bad decisions” instead of addressing the social conditions and targeting of specific communities that lead to incarceration, but I’d rather take this space to talk about the reality of women’s prisons.
The issue of “gender responsiveness” as an excuse to open more prisons has been rearing its ugly head lately with the expansion of CDCR’s supposed “reentry hubs” and “community based facilities,” totaling 4,090 new beds altogether.
The reality of violence and harm and the goal of gender responsive cages is clear to those inside: how to specifically abuse women who are in the system in a way that is particularly humiliating and intimidating based on identified traumas people in women’s prisons have likely suffered. Gender responsiveness does not mean increased safety and rights for women or even offering a healing space. It means very simply that CDCR can, has, and will continue to justify building more prisons all the while claiming they are attending to the supposed special needs of women and their children.
Gender responsiveness is a smoke screen, a pathetic attempt to mask the justification for more cages as “feminism.” Once again CDCR and local sheriffs have convinced decision makers that the right move is more prisons. But that’s the thing – they are prisons, plain and simple: There is nothing therapeutic, nothing pleasant, nothing sympathetic to the needs of people inside them.
As a person who spent 10 years in a prison, I can tell you these are worse than warehouses. In a warehouse, the stock is counted, but unlike warehouse stock we only hold value in labor. And labor you will; if you’re 80 years old, you work; if you’re sick, you work.
Gender responsiveness is a smoke screen, a pathetic attempt to mask the justification for more cages as “feminism.”
There is no dental care, no time off for the flu, no health care, and the majority of jobs pay 8 cents an hour, equaling $12 a month, of which the prison takes 55 percent, leaving $5.50 for a person to live off. With the prison only providing inadequate nutrition and a bed in a cell, people often suffer health problems based solely on the harsh living conditions. Inside prison you hold no human value – let alone any gender value – so why would gender responsive be anything more than a pretty picture painted solely for decision makers and budget controllers?
Gender responsiveness is a way of understanding how to specifically punish female-bodied people, not help them. The scariest part of gender responsive strategies is the idea of creating facilities to house mothers with their children.
CDCR’s Community Prisoner Mother Program (CPMP) is a “community-based” prison where mothers with children under 6 years old can be imprisoned for up to six years. This is terrifying because it is common place for correctional officers to call women “bitches,” “whiny,” “needy” “hoes,” and my personal favorite, “job security.”
This is not something that any person should endure, let alone children should watch, and is equivalent to the damage done to a child exposed to intimate violence. There is also the non-verbal violence in prisons that happens regularly, even when seemingly minor, such as having someone standing over or near you in an intimidating way.
Gender responsiveness is a way of understanding how to specifically punish female-bodied people, not help them.
Any person who has been in an abusive relationship or subjected to bullying knows that just the proximity and the body language of a person in control can be intimidating, scary and damaging. If prisons have been proven to damage the adults locked up in them, what does one think will happen to vulnerable children? Yet neo-liberals are excited about this idea and can safely sit up in Sacramento with no clue as to how this plays out in reality for those subject to the oppression of imprisonment.
In the wake on AB 109, otherwise known as realignment, the trend of justifying jail expansion to “better support” mothers and their children is happening throughout California. In Los Angeles, the sheriffs are framing the new planned mega jail in Lancaster as a “Women’s Village.” You can learn more about the struggle to oppose that gender responsive jail from this piece in the LA Progressive by Diana Zuniga and Mary Sutton of the LA No More Jails Campaign: “Why Is LA County Locking Up So Many Women?”
In San Francisco, Sheriff Mirkarimi is trying to rally advocates to support a new jail because it will be better for families. If the state actually cared about women as it claims, it would stop building new gender responsive cages, close down the existing ones, and allow the imprisoned mothers, sisters and daughters to return to their families and build real community-based programs to support them.
Misty Rojo is the communications and campaign director for Justice Now. Justice Now works with women and transgender people in prison and local communities to build a safe, compassionate world without prisons. She is also a member of California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). They are both member organizations of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Misty can be reached at 1322 Webster #210, Oakland CA 94612 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.