Put focus on women for state prison reform? If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.
Richard Krupp, Ph.D.
On April 9, 2011 the Sacramento Bee ran a Special to The Bee Viewpoint from Judy Patrick, CEO and President of the Women’s Foundation of California. Evidently Ms Patrick had recently visited the two women’s prisons in Chowchilla and had an opportunity to meet and talk with them. She was “heartened by their resilience and determination.” About half of the women can now be released to community supervision according to Ms Patrick because they are non-violent, low level offenders with children they need to raise.
Ms Patrick and the Sacramento Bee may want to take a look at a paper I wrote in 2005 regarding this issue, Women Offenders and Violent Crime, Victims of Trauma? Monstrous, Crazy, Evil, or Dangerous. Paradoxes and Conundrums. Here are some highlights:
Are women offenders, the victims of trauma and abuse or are they increasingly becoming more violent both in the community and in prison? Are these two scenarios mutually exclusive? Trauma and other life problems are commonly associated with explanations for female criminality. According to Stephanie Covington, “The female offender’s life is shaped by her socioeconomic status; her experience with trauma and substance abuse; and her relationships with partners, children, and family. Most women offenders are disadvantaged economically and this reality is compounded by their trauma and substance abuse histories.”
Various theories concerning women’s “pathways to crime” include elements of; trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, surviving abuse, low vocational and education skills, etc. In most of these areas comparisons to reported rates for men are described. Though some of the differences may be attributable to self-report variations, there may still be substantial differences between men and women on some of these elements.
Some light can be shed on this subject by looking at the victim selection of women who commit violent offenses. There are many current cases that can put faces on the numbers and may provide clues toward understanding the dynamics involved. Typically women offenders victimize other women, the elderly, or children. One of the most vulnerable victims is a pregnant woman. As described by Professor Sherry Colb (2005), Rutgers Law School, “a pregnant woman is in a condition that distinguishes her from all other people—men and women alike—who are not pregnant. She holds a second life within her body.”
Lisa Montgomery befriended Bobbie Stinnet through the Internet (Freed & Flores, 2004). She pretended to have an interest in the puppies Stinnet was raising and selling. On December 16, 2004, after being invited into Stinnet’s home, Montgomery strangled the eight-month pregnant woman to death, cut open her abdomen and stole her baby. Shortly after the murder and kidnap, Montgomery was showing off the baby as hers at a restaurant.
Peggy Jo Conner of Pennsylvania was arrested on October 15, 2005 for a vicious attempted homicide. Conner hit her eight-month pregnant neighbor over the head with a baseball bat then proceeded to cut the victim’s abdomen in an attempt to take her unborn child. Fortunately a teenage boy stumbled upon the crime scene and notified his father who called the police. Both the mother and child survived the attack. Conner’s attorney plans to hire a psychiatrist to determine why a law-abiding caring person would commit such a heinous act. Are there any mental health-related explanations for this behavior?
The connection between Conner and the victim was characterized as “a close friendship.” When the police arrived on the scene, Conner offered to move her car to make room for the ambulance. In her car, police found evidence of pre-meditation, a knife, syringe, gloves, and a hemostat [surgery clamp].
Gender Responsive Theories & Strategies
In Stephanie Covington’s paper The Relational Model of Women’s Psychological Development, she states that, “five patterns of relational disconnection may foster substance abuse and increased risks of relapse in women: (1) non-mutual relationships, (2) effects of isolation and shaming, (3) limiting relational images, (4) abuse, violation, and systemic violence, and (5) distortion of sexuality.” Covington goes on to describe how the feelings of isolation and shaming “may come to feel increasingly monstrous, crazy, evil, or dangerous.”
In describing Jean Baker Miller’s book, Toward a New Psychology of Women, Covington states, “She suggested that for women the primary motivation throughout life is toward establishing a basic sense of connection to others.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates that 62% of the violent female offenders had a prior relationship with their victims, while only 36% of male violent offenders were estimated to have known their victims. It might be more accurate to say that all human interaction involves the establishment of connections and relationships. This cannot be characterized as an attribute only found in women.
In the previously described incidents where women attacked pregnant women to “harvest” a child, relationships had been established. The victims knew their assailants and posed no threat. Since 1987 there have been 10 documented cases of “Newborn kidnapping by Caesarian section.” Half of these cases occurred since 2000. In a study looking at 199 cases of abductor violence in non-family infant kidnapping, abductors were usually women who had a prior relationship with the victim-mother. The authors stated, “When comparing infant kidnapping with other violent crimes, the number of times when this type of crime results in the death of the victim is extremely high, and the number of violent crimes committed by women is increasing.”<
Current Arrest and Incarceration Trends
According to a report from the Urban Institute regarding a similar time period “While the rate of female incarceration has risen, there has not been a corresponding rise in violent crime among female offenders. In fact, the proportion of women imprisoned for violent crimes continues to decrease as the proportion of women incarcerated for drug offenses increases (Covington, 2002, p. 68).”
Trends, of course, may appear different depending on the time period you are looking at. If we look at the 2000-2004-time period, we find the previously described trends (1989-1998) have reversed. The BJS reports, “For every category of major crime for the period 1990-1996—violent, property, drugs, and other felonies – the rate of increase in the number of convicted female defendants has outpaced the changes in the number of convicted male defendants (BJS, 2004).” The report goes on to state, “Since 1995 the annual rate of growth in the number of female inmates has averaged 5%, higher than the 3.3% average increase of male inmates (BJS, 2004).”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime reports indicates for Current (2004) Year Over Previous Year (2003) Arrest Trends, total offenses charged for males up 0.4%, but for females the increase was 2.9% (BJSI, 2004, P289). Also, for Murder and Non-negligent Manslaughter, males up 2.7% and females up 13.2%. The figures are even more alarming for the under 18-age group. Male arrests were up 19.4% and female arrests were up 38.6% for Murder and Non-negligent Manslaughter.
For the most part, women offenders target other women as their victims. In a special report on Women Offenders published in 2000, the BJS states that, “Three out of four victims of violent female offenders were women (BJS). Children and the elderly are also commonly victims of female criminals. “Women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killings of newborns, and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults.”
According to the BJS, “Between 1976 and 1997 parents and stepparents murdered nearly 11,000 children. Mothers and stepmothers committed about half of these child murders (BJS).” In Canada, between 1974 and 2000, 460 fathers and stepfathers were accused of killing their kids and 400 mothers and stepmothers.
The elderly are also often victims of violent women offenders. On October 13, 2002, a 47-year old California woman initially denied knowing anything about the killing of her 70-year old husband. His body was covered with cuts, 27 wounds, 15 stab wounds, half a dozen of which penetrated his flesh. Next she claimed self-defense, but couldn’t explain why she didn’t call the police and left the body for her 15-year old son to find the next day. The arresting authorities indicated woman told them, “Oh well, we were getting a divorce anyway.”
Judy Gellert had been employed as a substance abuse treatment counselor at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. She testified against her crime partner, 42-year old Marcia Johnson. The two sold a house and car belonging to their victim, a 71-year old man, months after they reported him missing to police. Johnson told the detective, “I was so mad at him, I cut his head off with the chainsaw. And then I cut both of his feet off. But when I cut his head off, I didn’t realize how heavy a head is.” The body parts were then wrapped in Saran Wrap and aluminum foil before placing them in a Rubbermaid container and buried.
Gellert and Johnson had established an ongoing close relationship with the elderly victim in this case. Was there any indication of past trauma in the lives of the two women involved in this murder? Gellert went to college, had stable employment, but did have a drug abuse history. Johnson had drug and mental health problems. In addition, she told a reporter that she would describe stories of her past molestation by a neighbor and mistreatment by her mother, to “make people feel sorry for me and get what I want.”
Current California State Prison Trends
Women in prison are also becoming more violent. Inmate Toledo at California’s Valley State Prison for Women, died on October 16, 2005 as a result of an altercation with another inmate on the yard. About 60 days later, on December 20, 2005, two women got into a fight at the same prison. Inmate Duran beat and strangled her cell partner, Yglesias to death, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times… In 2003, of the 33 state prisons in California, staff members at one of the women’s prisons were assaulted on 67 occasions, 48 of the assaults involved weapons. The rate of assaults per custody staff at that institution is one of the top ten for assaults on staff in California.
For women, the proportion in California state prisons for Crimes Against Persons in the year 2000 was 25% (2617), but by 2004 it was up to 30% (3148). The proportion in prison for murder/manslaughter went from 9.6% (1060) to 11.7% (1230). For Assault with a Deadly Weapon/Assault and Battery violations, there was an increase from 7.5% (816) to 10% (1041). (Updated figures for 2009 are included in the table below.)
Women in California State Prisons
Proportion by Year
* 2000, N=10,427 2004, N=10,671 2009, N=10,812
** Data source CDCR, (2010)
The California Department of Corrections is now embarking on a plan to move a large number of female inmates from a traditional state prison setting to a series of smaller community-based facilities. This movement is in part based on the gender responsive theories and strategies. The smaller facilities would provide “gender-based” services that would include; substance abuse treatment, anger management, trauma management, vocational and educational training, etc.
There is a general lack of evidence to support the theory that gender-based programs produce different outcomes than traditional models. “The literature on gender differences in treatment needs, points to gender-specific needs but conclusions are often not empirically based. The outcome literature, still very sparse, has not yet incorporated the literature on gender differences in pre-treatment characteristics and has not yet provided information on what components of gender-specific treatment are necessary to produce more successful outcomes for the female substance abusing population.”
In the “Female Offender Gender-Responsive Housing Plan (2005), it states, “women are less likely to be convicted of violent offenses, pose less danger to the community and are more successful in community-based therapeutic programs.” The current arrest and incarceration trends run contrary to California’s plan. The Leo Chesney Center, a private-contracted female community correctional facility, under contract with the Department of Corrections was evaluated in 2002. Concerning return to prison rates at six months, one and two years post release; the evaluation indicated that there was no difference in the return to prison rates between the women at the Leo Chesney Center and the comparison group of women housed in California’s State run institutions (CDC, 2002).
The Gender-Responsive Housing Plan proposes that a large number of low-level and non-violent women be moved to community-based facilities. The number of inmates falling into this category is estimated to be about 4,000. However, this estimate does not take into account criminal history, various medical issues, and other criteria that may preclude placement in community-based facilities. It is likely that the actual number of women meeting the criteria for placement in these facilities will be substantially less than the estimate of 4,000.
The Canadian Experience
Following a 1990 task force report on women in corrections in Canada, the Canadian Prison for Women was closed and the women offenders were moved from this central location to smaller regional facilities. One of the weaknesses of the task force report was that it did not address the small portion of inmates at the maximum security level who could not function in a community-type living unit. This was a new approach and both its strengths and weaknesses became apparent fairly quickly as detailed below.
In 1996, in one of the institutions, there were a number of serious incidents including, suicide attempts, serious assaults on staff, seven escapes, and a homicide. There was no perimeter fence at the time. Following “unrelenting media attention,” the higher-level custody women were transferred out of the regional facilities. The maximum security inmates were later moved to separate and distinct units in the men’s prisons until solutions could be developed (the co-located units all closed between 2003 and 2004). The minimum and medium security women remained in the regional institutions. Additional static security (perimeter detection fence with razor wire, cameras, etc.) was added.
These Canadian incidents were described in When She Was Bad. “A new facility in Edmonton, Alberta, for all the Prairie Region’s female inmates, responding to arguments made by Canada’s Elizabeth Frye Society that women are only in prison because of men’s abuse, and that if you treat them with respect, they’ll conduct themselves with dignity. As indicated above, no security fence was erected around the perimeter, and no locks were put on the “bedroom” doors. Within the first six months, 7 of the inmates escaped. One inmate was apparently hanged in her room by others who simply let themselves in.” The inmates that escaped were apprehended quickly, some phoned and asked to come back.
Between March 1999 and April 2002 there were twelve hostage-taking incidents. Nine of the incidents occurred in one of the women’s units in the men’s institution, one occurred in one of the new institutions, one in a psychiatric center, and one at a provincial institution that also accommodated federal women. The majority of the inmates involved in these incidents were not committed to prison for violent offenses.
In an exploratory investigation, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) determined that less than one-third of the commitment offenses were assault-related for the female perpetrators involved in the hostage taking incidents. However, about two-thirds of the women had a past history of assault-related offenses. Half of the inmates had been assessed as doing well in their programs prior to the hostage-taking incidents.
Staff were taken as hostage in six of the incidents. In ten of the incidents the inmates used weapons. During one hostage incident, inmates tortured a female correctional officer. The hostage takers were asked to comment on the impact of their actions on the correctional officers. Words in their description included; “traumatized”, “physically scarred”,”mentally damaged”, and “long-term damage.” One inmate questioned the impact, stating, “they exaggerate”, “they portray themselves as the victim, as whiney.”
A report commissioned by the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (CSN) indicated that the CSC had “underestimated the level of risk represented by female offenders, when judging them to be far less violent than men.” The report also found that contrary to the expectations of the CSC, the opening of new, smaller facilities for women was actually accompanied by an increase in violence.
The report went on to indicate that the CSC treated women “as if they could be characterized by only moderate degrees of risk, security and needs, as if it would suffice to confine them in a normalized environment and provide them with more or less elaborate treatment and training programs, in order to rehabilitate them.” The normalization of inmates via rehabilitation has been characterized by the union as a failure.
On November 3, 2005 a maximum-security inmate at the Edmonton Institution for Women scaled two internal fences, but not the perimeter fence and nearly escaped. The Edmonton Sun reported, “The circumstances that bring women into conflict are different than those of men. For that reason women have different needs.” According to the president of the UCCO, “We cannot understand why there are two levels of security for inmates for male and female institutions. Society is protected differently according to gender. If you’re a criminal, you’re a criminal.” Women have the same security levels as men, based on the same criteria, institutional adjustment, risk of escape, and risk to the public. Static security measures may be used differently in men’s versus women’s institutions.
Where do we go from here?
Violent women offenders present paradoxes. “We cannot insist on the strength and competence of women in all the traditional masculine arenas yet continue to exonerate ourselves from the consequences of power by arguing that, where the course of it runs more darkly, we are powerless. This has become an awkward paradox in feminist argument.” How can we explain a woman attacking a pregnant woman to take her baby? Are both the victim and assailant victims of trauma? If both are victims is anyone responsible for the horrific crime? What about the babies?
If women have such an array of handicaps working against them when they enter the criminal justice system, including trauma, lack of educational and vocational skills, etc, why do they generally have lower return to prison rates than men? Fiorentine et al. have described this conundrum as the “gender paradox”.
When designing gender-responsive strategies for the custody and supervision of women offenders, the criminal justice system must remain cognizant of the growing trend toward violence. Women have demonstrated escalating violent behavior both in the community and within correctional facilities. The state of Minnesota is spending millions of dollars to erect double fences around their state prison for women due to the increase in the number of dangerous female offenders.
According to Steve Salerno in his book SHAM, ‘Victimization has eroded time-honored notions of personal responsibility to a probably irrecoverable degree.” He goes on to state, “Victimization, which sells the idea that you are not responsible for what you do (at least not the bad things).” Criminal offenders must be held responsible for their own behavior and subsequent rehabilitation. Without this personal accountability, “Even murderers sometimes cease to become murderers and instead become victims of the conditions that made them murder.”
The victims targeted by female offenders are primarily other women. Children and the elderly also are often victims of women. The primary concern of the criminal justice system should be for the victims of criminals, not the perpetrators. The safety and security of the community and the correctional facilities that house criminals should outweigh unproven rehabilitative programs. “Once you make allowances based on people’s weaknesses, where do you draw the line? And who gets to draw it?”
Should all women who commit crimes be viewed as victims and not as offenders? In a Canadian report, The Transformation of Federal Corrections for Women: Myths and Realities, “It is true that many women offenders come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and that their lives have been characterized by poverty, violence, and physical and/or sexual abuse. However, women offenders do commit serious crimes that harm others and compromise public safety.”
If all women offenders are perceived as victims of abuse, trauma, economic disadvantages, etc., and not fully responsible for their own criminal behavior, we do a great disservice to the real victims. The real victims are the women, children, and elderly that female offenders assault, and murder at a rapidly expanding rate. As one correction’s official stated, “If a female offender is holding a knife to your throat, you don’t really care weather or not she was molested as a 12-year old because you can’t deal with history and causes during a crisis.” Incarceration with appropriate classification and custody considerations first; the testing of rehabilitative theories should be secondary.