July 26, 2013

Why are the federal prison beds for women in the Northeast going to men—while the women get shipped to Alabama?

7-26-2013 New York:

This August, the Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to start shipping women out of its only prison for women in the Northeast, located in Danbury, Conn.—70 miles from New York City, and in easy reach of visitors for the many prisoners who come from there.

Danbury (where Piper Kerman, who wrote Orange is the New Black, did her time) will soon have only 200 spots for women (in a separate low-security camp). The prison’s other 1,100 beds will go to men. 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.

The federal Bureau of Prisons houses about 220,000 people. Fewer than 7 percent (about 14,500) are women, most of them sentenced for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses. Of the 116 facilities the bureau runs, 27 have some beds for women, and seven—counting Danbury—have been exclusively for women. Danbury is the only prison placement in the Northeast for women. The federal jails in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia are for pretrial detainees. Other federal facilities for women comparable to Danbury are many miles away, in West Virginia, Florida, and Minnesota.

Getting women into Danbury—and into the Northeast—was a relatively recent and hard-fought change. In 1979, I testified before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives about the lack of attention paid to female federal prisoners, and the paucity of housing options for them. 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.” ..continued.. by Judith Resnik

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