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Old 08-14-2005, 03:22 PM
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Forgotten Women
Journalist Cristina Rathbone gets an inside view of MCI-Framingham

by Maureen Turner - August 4, 2005


T he U.S. prison population has skyrocketed over the past decade, growing by about 30 percent from 1995 to 2003. More than 2 million people -- roughly 1 in 143 Americans, according to the New York Times -- are now behind bars in this country.

But they're an invisible population. The media -- and the general public -- rarely pay attention to what happens behind the walls of the country's more than 1,400 jails and prisons until a scandal erupts, notes Boston-based journalist Cristina Rathbone. That kind of coverage is important, she says, but it's limited in its view.

With her new book, A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars (Random House), Rathbone set out to tell a more complete story, specifically about female inmates, whose numbers are growing at breakneck speed. The number of women in prison has increased 400 percent over the past 25 years. The New York-based Women in Prison Project says there are 101,000 women in state or federal prison in the U.S., and another 900,000 in jail or on parole or probation.

Rathbone spent years interviewing women at MCI-Framingham, the state's only prison for women. She talked to black, white and Hispanic women from their 20s to their 50s, most imprisoned on drug or theft charges. She captured the most minute details of their lives -- what they ate; how they managed to exercise; the small things that caused friction between them -- and the most dramatic features: their fractured relationships with their families, especially their children; their daily anxieties about the future.

"Mainstream Americans are somehow able to believe that the types of people who go to prison are just not like them," Rathbone says. "And with that kind of gulf separating one group from another, all kinds of disastrous things and wrongheaded systems are going to establish themselves."

When Rathbone began her project in 2000, she ran immediately into a brick wall: The Massachusetts Department of Corrections rejected her request to interview inmates, despite the fact that her request didn't meet any of the criteria by which DOC could deny a reporter access.

With the help of the ACLU and a pro bono attorney, Rathbone sued. After months of wrangling, DOC backed down, although not completely: Rathbone was limited to MCI-Framingham's visiting room and not allowed to see other parts of the prison.

Even then, she says, prison staff would give her a hard time when she showed up for her interviews: keeping her waiting for hours, requiring her to provide paperwork that hadn't been required before, subjecting her to full-body patdowns. She had to sue a second time for permission to sit in on a mother/child program run by the Girl Scouts.

The DOC's resistance to outside scrutiny, despite the fact that taxpayers fund its $860 million annual budget, is not unique; some states, in fact, bar all media interviews with inmates.

"They're very used -- the Department of Corrections here, and across the nation -- to having a pretty much opaque barrier between themselves and the rest of society," she says. "They didn't want someone seeing through that -- which is very understandable, if not legal."

Limited to the visiting room, Rathbone spent endless hours talking to women like "Denise," a crack addict with an abusive, unstable ex and a sweet, troubled little boy who'd already threatened suicide by 9, and "Charlene," a young, single mom who'd jumped at the chance when an acquaintance offered her $10,000 to courier drugs from Jamaica to Boston -- a first offense that earned her a mandatory 15-year sentence.

Their cases were pretty typical: Fifty-seven percent of women inmates are abuse victims, Rathbone reports. Eighty-four percent have a history of drug addiction. An astonishingly high number are mentally ill; 60 percent of the women at Framingham take psychotropic drugs.

Sixty-three percent of women prisoners in Massachusetts are in for non-violent crimes, usually drug-related (although, Rathbone writes, "they are frequently mere accessories ... girlfriends, wives or lovers of drug dealers, even leaseholders of apartments in which drugs are stashed"). By contrast, 69 percent of male prisoners are convicted of violent crimes.

Still, Rathbone writes, there's a special stigma attached to female prisoners: "One unintended result of our incredibly high incarceration rates is that for men, going to prison has become a rite of passage in many communities. For women, because they are comparatively so few, it is still very much a disgrace."

And, unlike the men, the women are much more likely to be the primary caregivers for children -- children who often end up living with elderly grandmothers or other relatives, or sent to foster care. Nationally, there are 1.3 million kids whose mothers are under some form of "correctional supervision."

In Massachusetts, about three-quarters of women prisoners are mothers. A 2003 study by UMass Boston estimated that there were 7,000 mothers, with a combined 16,000 children, incarcerated in Massachusetts. Contact between mothers and their children is often spotty; collect calls from prison are costly, and visiting can be difficult, especially for families who live far from Framingham.

A mother of two, Rathbone says she found it painful to hear the women she interviewed talk about how much they missed their kids, how much they worried about them, and how little power they had to nurture and protect them. Even a relatively "minor" sentence can devastate a family.

"Five years can pretty much destroy a child," Rathbone says. "It's why I feel so strongly that mandatory sentences -- especially for non-violent drug offenses, but really all mandatory sentences -- need to be stopped. Because they just cause so much harm, not only to the people we're sentencing, but, more importantly, to their children."

MCI-Framingham, which opened in 1877, is the oldest operating women's prison in the U.S. Old log books show that the earliest inmates were largely poor immigrants, imprisoned for what Rathbone writes "seemed more like personality traits than crimes": lewdness, idleness, stubbornness. Convictions for public drunkenness, adultery and "illegal cohabitation" were common.

That's not so different from today, when women are largely arrested for drug crimes or prostitution. "[M]en are still punished mostly for crimes against property and people -- theft, assault, and murder," Rathbone writes, "while the majority of women continue to be punished for transgressions against conventional morality, namely, for having sex and getting high."

Framingham was founded at the urging of reformers. Previously women inmates, here and around the country, had been held at male facilities, sequestered in dingy quarters so as not to spread their "moral pestilence" to the men, Rathbone writes. A previous attempt at an all-women prison, 30 years earlier in New York, failed when anxious state prison officials forced out a progressive female administrator who believed prison should be about reform, not punishment.

That's not unusual in the history of women's prisons, Rathbone found. Would-be reformers adopt policies designed to help inmates changes their lives. Then, as the pendulum of public opinion and political pressure swings back, they're pushed aside in favor of a more punitive model.

Miriam Van Waters, a dedicated administrator who took over Framingham in the 1930s, created a progressive institution that served as a model for other prisons around the country. There were no fences. There was a nursery for inmates' children, a theater, a gym, a hospital and a working farm. There were countless activities for inmates: singing and theater groups, literary magazines, classes.

But those reforms died with Van Waters. Today, MCI-Framingham is a very different place, thanks to budget cuts and a "tough-on-crime" political climate. Some classes, like English as a second language, have been eliminated; others, like GED classes, remain but have fewer seats. The wait list for popular vocational programs like computer classes can stretch for years. College courses are available, but only to women who already have some credits.

"In this way, programs at Framingham both exist and do not exist," Rathbone writes. "Therapy, exercise, educational opportunities, behavior modification, and drug treatment can all be said to exist in the prison. Most, however, are unavailable to the majority of women incarcerated there."

Instead, the women face day after day of yawning boredom, loneliness, unhealthy food, limited exercise and sometimes bizarre rules and regulations (dental floss, for instance, is forbidden; being caught with it can earn you a stay in a punishment cell, known as "the Hole").

One thing that surprised Rathbone was the lack of violence at the prison. "I think those ideas are based around what we may see on TV or in books, pulp-fiction type books, and they may be based on our images of male prisons, with women just replacing men, these very wild and violent and sexually predatory images," she says.

Violence might be common at men's prisons, she adds, but at Framingham, "it was as if that violence had just been replaced by sadness."

Rules do get broken, though. Drugs are sometimes smuggled in, perhaps with the help of a cooperating guard. A healthy black market exists, with the most coveted items underwear, food and cosmetics (eyeliner runs $10; tweezers, $50).

Most scandalous were the stories Rathbone heard about sexual relationships between inmates and guards, usually hasty liaisons conducted in empty offices or supply closets as other prisoners and guards pretended not to notice. In some cases, the women trade sex for small comforts: pizza, cigarettes, a cotton blanket instead of the standard-issue scratchy wool. Others get involved with guards out of boredom, sexual frustration, profound loneliness.

Twenty-two year-old "Julie," a cop's daughter sentenced for robbing dry cleaners with her boyfriend, giddily told Rathbone about her affair with an older married guard. "Officer F." was jealous and abusive, roughing up Julie if he thought she was too friendly to another guard. Still, she told Rathbone, she loved him.

Rape and sexual abuse by guards has always been a problem in women's prisons, Rathbone writes; in the 1990s, there were a string of high-profile cases around the country, including a Framingham guard named Anthony Maddix, who pleaded guilty to rape and indecent assault. Murkier are the "consensual" relationships like Julie's.

When Julie asked her not to write about the prevalence of inmate/guard relationships -- warning she'd "ruin it for everybody" -- Rathbone considered honoring the request. "I couldn't help feeling," she writes, "that even such a clearly self-destructive choice as Julie's remained a choice, and therefore a precious commodity in a world where your every minute is controlled by the state."

For many women, the first days in prison are spent detoxing. Nationally, Rathbone reports, about 90 percent of women in prison are drug addicts; at Framingham, 9,000 women every year go cold turkey in the 29-bed detox unit.

"The rooms reek of the vomit and green liquid feces they release in all-night convulsions, along with the last traces of drugs from their bodies," she writes. "Residence in these wards is so dreaded, in fact, that women in the know do everything they can to avoid being placed in them, and there are often one or two inmates in the mainstream residential units detoxing on their own."

Also common at Framingham are psychiatric problems. About one-third of the inmates are "seriously mentally ill," according to DOC's head of mental health, Rathbone writes. Self-cutting and suicide attempts are not uncommon. Because the state does not have a facility for mentally ill women inmates, they end up in the general population or, when things get really bad, in the health services unit.

Potential suicides are placed in an isolation room that Rathbone describes as barbaric: cinder-block walls, a seatless toilet and mattress on the floor. The women wear paper gowns and receive their meals through a slot in the door; one woman told Rathbone of having her therapy sessions through the slot, crouched on the floor to talk to the therapist on the other side.

"When residential mental health facilities were closed down [in the 1970s], for the most part, these people just ended up in the criminal justice system, and no one is being well served by that," Rathbone says. "Women tend to turn their frustrations on themselves more than men, which is why in men's prison there's so much more inter-inmate violence, whereas in a women's prison most of the violence is taken out by a woman on herself.

"Even every correctional official wants to have the really mentally ill people put in a place where they can be treated," Rathbone continues, "but that just doesn't happen. There just aren't the facilities. They end up on the street, then they end up back in prison. There's nowhere else for them.

"They're being thrown away, and thrown away in a place where care is secondary to security."

Many of the women at Framingham are there as the direct result of drug-reform laws that began in the 1970s and peaked during the "Just Say No" '80s. They include laws that carry mandatory minimum sentences even for first offenses, and drug-conspiracy laws that treat small players the same as major dealers.

The results: Prisons are filled with low-level dealers and peripheral players. So-called "kingpins" cut reduced-sentence deals, by giving the police information on other dealers or by coughing up drug money through forfeiture laws, which Rathbone describes as "a kind of legalized bribery" on which police departments are increasingly reliant for cash. The drug trade, meanwhile, continues to flourish.

"Everybody agrees [this strategy] doesn't work -- except politicians agree it doesn't work privately," Rathbone says. "It boils down to this notion that they don't want to appear soft on crime."

There are other forces at work, she adds. Prisons have become a major industry -- bigger, Rathbone notes, than major league baseball, bigger than the pornography industry. Massachusetts' annual DOC budget of $860 million is dwarfed by budgets in states like Texas and California, which spend more than $5 billion a year. And there are plenty of companies eager to get their hands on that money.

Rathbone writes of attending a national conference for prison officials, where she found AT&T and MCI hawking high-security prison phone systems alongside companies pitching stun guns and restraint chairs sized for children. With so much money changing hands, Rathbone notes, "There's a self-sustaining aspect to the criminal justice system, like the war on drugs. Its purpose almost becomes to keep itself going. ..."

Still, many states can't keep up the growth. It costs, on average, $38,000 a year to house each of the 2.1 million people behind bars in the U.S., a price tag that has prompted about 25 states to amend their sentencing or correctional policies in recent years, Rathbone writes. "In an era of reduced state budgets and soaring fiscal deficits," she notes, "the financial cost of tough-on-crime policies is becoming prohibitive."

Early last year, a self-described reformer named Kathleen Dennehy was made commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. Dennehy succeeded Michael Malone, who resigned under pressure after the death of John Geoghan, the pedophile priest murdered by another inmate at MCI-Shirley.

Dennehy sat down with Rathbone and outlined her top priorities: improving education programs, bringing more community groups into the prisons, working with inmates' families, preparing prisoners better for life after release. She talked about bringing about a "culture change" and making DOC more publicly accountable.

Rathbone had her doubts. As deputy commissioner, Dennehy was the one who'd rejected her interview requests a few years earlier; new regulations forbid even the limited access Rathbone won; those reporters who get in to talk to inmates cannot bring cameras or recorders and must conduct their interviews in the presence of a DOC employee. "[My] book could never have been written today," she says. "I never could have had the conversations I did or developed the relationships I did under circumstances like that."

Dennehy has said she plans to soften media restrictions, although she has yet to do it. Still, Rathbone sounds guardedly optimistic, given other changes Dennehy has brought about.

"She's taken on some pretty tough fights with [the corrections officers union], which is a very, very powerful body. She's taken them on by punishing [officers] when they've abused inmates, firing them when they've overstepped their legitimate right to restrain, and this has driven them pretty crazy. It's a very brave thing she's doing," Rathbone says.

"I think she's also serious about taking on the question of re-entry, trying to dissolve some of the barriers between prison and the community. I think she's coming at it from a public safety point of view, and I think she's very pragmatic and quite determined to effect change. It's still too early to say if it's going to work."

From her research, Rathbone knows that even the most determined reformer is never guaranteed lasting success. "We've been in this long period of entrenchment," she says. "Here in Massachusetts, we're in the beginning of a real period of reform. Whether this will be a circle, whether it will lead to entrenchment again, or have the impetus to launch out of the circle ... is the question."
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