This woman rocks. Check out Susan Burton and A New Way of Life on the new Critical Resistance video: Visions of Abolition. Here’s a preview:
Women’s prisons closures good fiscal, social policy
Timothy P. Silard, Jean Ross
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
San Fransisco Chronicle
After the death of her 5-year-old son, Susan Burton turned to drugs and ended up in California’s criminal justice system.
Over the course of two decades, Burton’s addiction caused her to cycle through California’s prison system six times for drug offenses. She finally got help and turned her life around at a local rehabilitation center, not in prison. Today, Burton helps other formerly incarcerated women to permanently exit the system through A New Way of Life, a nonprofit in South Central Los Angles that she founded.
Burton and the women she works with are among the key groups that could be helped by the impending “realignment” of the corrections system, a groundbreaking effort to give counties – rather than the state – responsibility for managing low-level, nonviolent offenders. If implemented effectively, restructuring could result in one significant yet often overlooked solution to California’s economic woes: closing one or more of the prisons used to house women.
California warehouses one of the largest populations of female prisoners in the world and also has the dubious distinction of being home to two of the world’s largest women’s prisons. Both in Chowchilla, these prisons cost our cash-strapped state $278 million a year. This reform presents an unprecedented opportunity to rapidly reduce the number of women sent to state prison and to shutter one or both of the women’s institutions in Chowchilla.
More than half of the state’s 9,500 female prisoners are classified as low risk, locked up for nonviolent and non-serious offenses. Under AB109, signed into law this year to implement the governor’s plan for restructuring corrections as part of the budget agreement, these women would not be sentenced to state prison, but would instead be placed in county jail, drug-treatment programs, community service or other alternatives to state custody.
California desperately needs the savings that would be realized by closing down these facilities. For instance, saving a significant portion of that $278 million could offset a sizable share of the $650 million in budget cuts made to the California State University system in the recently passed state budget.
Reducing the state’s population of female prisoners and closing down the facilities used to house them is not only fiscally prudent, it is also good public policy. These are women who often do not belong in state prison in the first place. Research shows that they are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators, and 4 out of every 10 women behind bars have histories of being physically or sexually abused. Most of the women in California state prison are mothers, and many are single parents. Without the support these women need to successfully re-enter their communities and get off drugs, nearly 60 percent of them end up back in prison within three years. It’s a frustrating revolving door that comes at an enormous cost to our budgets and to the lives of tens of thousands of women and children. The restructuring of corrections lays the groundwork for counties to pursue treatment, education, home detention and other alternatives to incarceration.
Now is the time for California to make a novel and bold move. A recent survey shows that a large majority of Californians are tired of bearing the burden of the “lock ’em up” approach to public safety that has driven criminal justice policy in California for years. And, after a nearly 40-year prison boom, 13 states – including Texas – have closed or are planning to shutter such facilities.
Let’s commit now to full and effective implementation of realigning public-safety programs by providing treatment-based solutions for female offenders. Let’s start planning to close state prisons that are no longer needed.
Timothy P. Silard is a former prosecutor and president of the Rosenberg Foundation, a statewide grant-making foundation based in San Francisco. Jean Ross is executive director of the Sacramento-based California Budget Project.