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Gina R Autrey

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Women In Prison - Some good facts
Something Needs to Change
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Article on Women In Prison
By Gina R Autrey   
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, August 16, 2007
Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2007

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This is a really good article - it highlights alot of the problems that are faced all throughout the country - and here in SC as well.

The state prison for women in Goffstown houses 133 women, 33 more than its designated capacity. The crowding has forced prison officials to convert an activity room to a 24-bed dormitory. The regular dormitory section houses 60 inmates who share three toilets and four showers.

On the other side of the prison, where newer and higher-security prisoners are kept, some inmates don't have cells. They sleep in bunk beds set up in a common area, ducking into a neighboring cell when they have to use a toilet. The lights above their heads stay on throughout the night.

Without air conditioning, the cells and dorms heat up quickly. Mildew grows in heavily used showers, and some tiles have cracked or fallen out. Women fight for space and bicker. Sometimes they shout to be heard over the noise in a room, inmates said.

William Wrenn, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, said population increases at the women's prison have put them at a "critical stage." He hopes the Legislature will approve funds for a new women's prison in the next several years.

But in the meantime, the cramped conditions have added to the tension among female inmates.

"The dorms area has become a powder keg: We're just waiting," said Heather Strong, 35, of Laconia, who returned to prison on a parole violation for drug use.

Melissa Kelly, an inmate originally incarcerated on a drug charge, said, "I don't think it's safe for the inmates or the staff. What are they going to do if something happens in here?"

There are 600 officers to oversee nearly 3,000 inmates statewide, and 10 percent of the positions are vacant, said Jeff Lyons, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. Twenty corrections officers work at the women's prison, but there may be as few as four working at one time, he said.

"We have not as of yet had any serious life-threatening safety situations arise," Lyons said. "Staffing remains the same as the population continues to grow. Staff is vigilant in maintaining safety. There's always the concern that a large group of offenders in a confined area can result in security concerns or safety issues. Our staff is addressing that and remaining vigilant."

National trend

Susan McLaughlin, who has served 18 years of a life sentence for accomplice to murder, said, "This is the worst it has ever been. . . . How would you like to hold your bowels for an hour, lights on 24 hours a day?"

Food portions are becoming smaller, Strong said. Since the prison operates on two-year budget cycles, the money allotted for food was based on 2005 estimates, Lyons said. But the prison has had a net increase of 22 inmates since January.

Prison populations are increasing nationwide, and the female prison population is rising at a faster rate. Of the more than 2 million prisoners held in U.S. prisons and jails in 2006, 111,000 of them were women, a 5 percent increase from 2005, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. The 2006 male population of 1.4 million increased 3 percent.

Prison officials say the main problem is not an increase in crime but a steady stream of repeat offenders. Of the 2,800 prisoners incarcerated in the state, about 42 percent of them have been returned to prison after violating their parole, Lyons said.

Many state officials blame the recidivism on a lack of mental health, drug and career counseling to help former inmates succeed once they are released from prison. And female inmates, who represent only 6 percent of the state prison population, are often shortchanged when it comes to programs.

There are fewer vocational training and counseling opportunities for the women, according to a 2004 report by the state Commission on the Status of Women. And while there is a 28-day rehabilitation program for male parolees who relapse into drug use, no such program exists for women, said Joanne Fortier, acting warden at the women's prison. (About 85 percent of all inmates - male and female - struggle with drug addiction.)

An extra challenge?

Female inmates may face greater challenges than male inmates. About 80 percent of female inmates have children, and a large portion have suffered physical or sexual abuse, Fortier said.

"If a (paroled woman) is employed at Dunkin' Donuts and she's supporting two or three children and she's struggling with substance abuse recovery and trauma, that's an awful lot for an individual to overcome and to succeed," Fortier said.

Crowding at the prison only complicates the problem. Teachers have used the cafeteria and the substance-abuse counseling room for classes. The workout room won't fit more than about a dozen, and with one of the activity rooms housing two dozen inmates, there are fewer places to sew or study.

"The more crowded we get, the less room there is for programs," said Theresa deLangis, executive director of the state Commission on the Status of Women. "This is a huge problem in our state."

Fortier said she's allowed inmates an hour of additional recreation time to help them have more time to themselves and therefore hopefully defuse potential fights. But she expects the population will continue to increase.

Last year, the commission helped pass a law that established a coordinating council to look into services for female offenders. The law also established a position for an administrator of female offender services, a job that has not been filled.

At least $20 million

The Department of Corrections has made some improvements at the women's prison. The agency hired a full-time counselor and a case manager to work in Goffstown. The Shea Farm Halfway House in Concord was converted to a female facility soon after the commission released its report in December 2004, and the prison plans to use it as a transitional housing unit for women nearing their release dates, Wrenn, the corrections commissioner, said. The department also plans to improve mental health services at the men's and women's facilities through a $4 million to $5 million contract with a mental health provider. The department has not yet awarded the contract, Wrenn said.

Wrenn has presented the Legislature with a capital budget request for 2010-11 for money to build a new women's prison. He thinks it will cost between $20 million and $25 million.

Several female inmates interviewed recently said a larger prison would fix the problem only temporarily.

"I don't want a bigger prison," McLaughlin said. "We would like a smaller prison with better programs. We would like sentence restructuring. . . . They just need to start opening the doors and letting some of these people out."

McLaughlin, 54, was convicted in 1989 of helping her husband, former Hampton police officer Robert McLaughlin, kill his neighbor, a real estate agent named Robert Cushing. Cushing had accused Robert McLaughlin of police brutality.

Kimberly Tardif-Vaughn, 32, who stole from her aunt's house in 1998 to get money to buy crack cocaine, said she hasn't had enough drug treatment to make her confident she won't have another relapse.

"You see the same faces over and over again," she said.

She was sentenced to 3 to 6 years for the burglary and has violated her probation three times since her release: once for talking to a felon and twice for testing positive for drugs, she said.

Tardif-Vaughn, who will reach her maximum sentence date in February, said she hasn't been able to find drug treatment because she also suffers from mental illness. Some rehabilitation centers in the state will not take inmates who have both substance abuse and mental health issues, a problem prison officials say is out of their hands.

Waiting game

Strong, who served three years in prison for embezzlement and credit card fraud, was paroled in March 2006. She got a job as a restaurant manager and innkeeper in Tilton, she said.

But last October, Strong, who has struggled with addiction to prescription pain pills, relapsed, taking OxyContin and then methadone.

"Once I relapsed, I was in a tailspin," she said.

She has been in prison since May, waiting to get into a substance abuse program. The first program she applied to turned her down because she had also been diagnosed with a mood disorder, she said.

Strong said it doesn't make sense for the state to spend money to incarcerate her - about $30,000 per inmate each year - rather than help her enter a substance abuse program while she can still go to work and live at her apartment.

"I'm being housed waiting for bed space in a program - I could do that from home," she said.

Referring to the conditions at the prison, Strong said, "People are probably thinking, 'Oh well, let them rot.'. . . People from the outside definitely don't want to hear people in prison whining."

But Strong says the conditions are just a symptom of a prison system that is costly and ineffective. "We need legislation for more funding for programs," she said. "There just is not enough. . . . That's why there's so many women sitting here just waiting to get out."

(Joelle Farrell can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 304, or by e-mail at

------ End of article


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