IN 1983, Harriette Davis was seven and a half months pregnant when she was incarcerated in the California Institution for Women at Frontera. A battered wife, she had killed her husband in self-defense. Instead of serving her entire six-year sentence behind bars, she was able to finish the last seven months of a shortened sentence in the Mother-Infant Care program, a residential-care alternative-sentencing program for women.
Ms. Davis spoke of her experience at a meeting in Chicago in May that brought together advocates for women in prison.
Davis went into early labor in prison, was handcuffed, and taken to a public hospital where she delivered a baby girl. Two days later, her daughter was taken from her and placed in the care of Davis's mother and sister. Until she was accepted in the Mother-Infant Care program two years later, she saw her baby only every six months.
At the Brandon House in San Jose, Calif., Davis was reunited with her daughter and was able to spend more time with her other two children. (Because the program takes children only under age six, the older children remained with relatives.)
"The program gave a chance for me and my baby to get to know each other," she says. "It gave me a chance, little by little, to get used to going out into the community - just taking buses again, shopping; it helps you with job skills. ... it just really makes that transition (into the community possible) earlier."
Alternative-sentencing programs for women, such as the Mother-Infant Care program, are growing across the United States. Such residential-care programs allow women offenders, with their children, to serve part of their sentences under supervision in a community setting. Many advocates say the programs benefit mothers and children, help women reenter the community, and are a solution to prison overcrowding.
"Women are less likely to return to prison and more likely to get a job and get settled in the society and support their children" after going through such programs, says Ellen Barry, director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners With Children.
The California Mother-Infant Care program takes eligible low-security women prisoners who have children under age six. Mothers participate in weekly parenting classes, do community service work, and have access to job training and continuing-education classes.
Since 1985, when a lawsuit was filed against the California Department of Corrections that led to reforms and the expansion of the then six-year-old program, the program has grown from one center with three women to seven centers serving 125 women and 125 children.
As the population of women prisoners continues to soar (it tripled from about 13,000 in 1981 to more than 40,000 in 1989, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics), advocates say more alternatives to incarceration are needed.
The majority of women offenders are incarcerated for nonviolent economic crimes such as stealing to feed their children or to support their drug habit. A growing percentage of inmates are battered women who kill their abusers.
Because most of these women are poor, single, young, undereducated, and alcohol- or drug-dependent, many say locking them up doesn't address their real problems.
"What the …