Community leaders call for re-entry support, prison closure and release of caregivers from men’s prisons
by Emily Harris, Californians United for a Responsible Budget
Oakland – The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced Tuesday that non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders who are female, pregnant or were primary caregivers prior to incarceration and have less than two years of their sentences left are eligible to serve the rest of their sentences in residential homes, residential substance-abuse treatment programs or transitional care facilities. Community leaders from around the state offered cautious optimism, noting the project’s very limited scope and vague details while calling for stronger re-entry support and prison closure.
“When my mom got out, she didn’t know what to do. She had no access to services, counseling or housing,” says Charise McMahan, youth advocate with Project WHAT! whose parents have both been imprisoned. McMahan continues, “We need to begin the reunification process before parents are released and provide families with all the services they need to be successful.”
According to a poll by the California Research Bureau, 59 percent of mothers and 31 percent of fathers were unemployed in the month prior to their arrest. The same study showed that as of 2001, California imprisoned 10,300 mothers and 84,000 fathers.
Karen Shain, policy director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, states: “California must reduce its prison population, and we see releasing parents as a good place to start. We know when it comes to this plan that it is all about the details.”
In January 2006, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced CDCR had identified 4,500 people locked in women’s prisons who don’t need to be in prison. “Rather than waste more Corrections money on electronic monitoring, the state should be funding programs that help the formerly incarcerated rebuild their lives and reconnect with family,” said Deirdre Wilson, program coordinator for California Coalition for Women Prisoners and a former prisoner separated from her own children. Wilson also highlights Tuesday’s move as a stepping stone for further change, saying, “This plan is a tip of the iceberg for the re-orientation of resources and services needed to support real community rehabilitation, including expansion to men as caregivers.”
CDCR’s plan could have a significant impact on California’s ongoing budget crisis. “This plan offers a unique opportunity to free up money to use for desperately needed services without posing a threat to public safety. To reap these benefits, we must hold the state accountable to this promise of releasing 4,000 people,” noted Cynthia Chandler, executive director for Justice Now.
Under CDCR’s plan, the world’s largest women’s prisons, which are located in the Central Valley, could be emptied. Chandler cautions, “We won’t save any money, reduce harms or help communities if we convert an emptied prison for women into a prison for men or by crowding women into a smaller number of prisons. We must be vigilant to ensure this plan is not cloaked with false promises.”
Californians United for a Responsible Budget is a statewide coalition of over 40 organizations working to reduce the number of prisoners and prisons in the state of California. Project What!, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Justice Now are members.
Emily Harris is statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), 1322 Webster St., Suite 210, Oakland, CA 94612, (510) 435-1176. She can be reached at email@example.com.