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New Hardships For Female Prisoners

As the Danbury (CT) New Times recently reported:

Beginning in August, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will start transferring the first of about 1,150 women incarcerated at the low-security Pembroke Road facility to other institutions.[…] The change will not affect the Danbury camp, located near the prison, which houses 210 low-security female inmates, nor the 1,150 staff members who work there.[…]

[FCI spokesman Matthew] Marske said the inmates will be “evaluated on a case-by-case basis” for transfer to other institutions, including a new women’s prison scheduled to open in Alabama later this year. Twenty-eight of the 116 facilities operated by the Bureau of Prisons across the country house female inmates, but only seven, including Danbury, are all women, and about 7 percent of the approximately 219,000 inmates are female.

Writing yesterday on Slate, Yale law professor Judith Resnik, who, as far back as 1979, testified before Congress about the lack of attention paid female federal prisoners, raised significant questions and concerns about the announced move:

Most of the women are slated to be sent to a new 1,800-bed facility in Aliceville, Ala.—1,070 miles from New York City, a drive that takes nearly 16 hours.

Becoming the site of a new federal prison is good news for Aliceville, population 2,500. As a New York Times editorial explained last year, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby promoted the facility as an economic boost to the area. It cost the federal government $250 million.

But as the newspaper also commented, the government bought a “white elephant.” Aliceville is hard for anyone without a car to get to. There is no train station or airport nearby. Aliceville has no medical center or university, nor many lawyers, religious leaders, or other service providers.[…]

Danbury is the only prison placement in the Northeast for women.[…] It took 15 more years of lobbying, along with steep growth in the numbers of women sent to prison, before Danbury opened its doors in 1994. In addition to proximity to their families, women gained access to a program that Yale Law School had begun in the 1970s to provide legal assistance to federal prisoners. In 1997, the situation of women prisoners seemed to brighten a bit when the Bureau of Prisoners issued a new policy, committing itself to attending to women’s “different physical, social and psychological needs.”

But despite efforts by the National Association of Women Judges, the bureau has repeatedly refused to make good on that commitment. Time and again, it has refused to follow the lead of many states and create special programs for women with children, make visiting easier, or expand community placements, education, and job training.

Being moved far from home limits the opportunities of women being moved out of Danbury; it hurts them in prison and once they get out. Recent research from Michigan and Ohio documents that inmates who receive regular visits are less likely to have disciplinary problems while in prison and have better chances of staying out of prison once released.[…]

But for prisoners from New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the move to Aliceville closes off those possibilities. Placement in Aliceville also makes it harder for lawyers to see their clients and provide help on problems ranging from losing custody of children to challenging convictions.

On information and belief, most members of Congress representing women from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, that is, the population presumptively most likely to be housed at Danbury, are unaware of the Bureau’s intentions. Those who interested may wish to contact their senators or representative and bring this important issue to their attention. More on the Congressional jockeying behind the opening of the Aliceville facility, and others, can be found here.