US Women's Prisons Overflow Incarceration Rate Far Outpaces Men's, and Prison Officials Are Scrambling to Keep Up

Article excerpt

THE prison auditorium was long ago overtaken by bunk beds. In the housing blocks, inmates sleep two to a cell and spill over into lounge areas. Shower times are staggered to accommodate antiquated plumbing - but prisoners still complain of going a week without hot water.

The California Institution for Women at Frontera, set among the poultry and dairy farms of San Bernardino County, has been nicknamed "the campus" for its red-brick buildings and dormitory-like design.

But conditions are far from collegiate. Holding the toughest women in the state penal system, Frontera shoehorns 2,600 inmates into a facility designed for 900. It is the most crowded prison in California - and the most populated women's prison in the free world.

"I don't think any prison should be overcrowded to this point," says Associate Warden Ross Dykes. "But it is not something we can remedy immediately."

Frontera's plight is becoming increasingly familiar across the United States.

While women still make up only a fraction of the total US prison population (5.6 percent), they are arriving in numbers that mock the past.

The US Justice Department recently reported that the female prison population (in state and federal penitentiaries) grew 24.4 percent last year versus 12.5 percent for men - the ninth straight year the women's incarceration rate surpassed the men's.

The surge is posing new problems for states and bringing charges that they are not providing the kinds of programs women inmates require.

"The problem is you have a system that has traditionally viewed itself as being for men," says Brenda Smith, head of the women's prison project for the National Women's Law Center.

In California, women have been incarcerated at a faster rate than men every year since 1982. In 1987 the female prison population grew 54 percent in Washington D.C., 40 percent in New York, and 35 percent in Virginia.

"It certainly is a significant issue," says Dick Franklin of the Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections.

Drug-related crime is the most commonly cited reason. Police dragnets combating crack cocaine have caught many women as well as men. Some are single parents selling drugs to help feed their children. Others commit crimes to support their habits.

Mandatory sentencing laws, which prescribe prison terms regardless of gender, have contributed to more women being put behind bars. Nor are cops and judges as lenient with women as they once were.

"There used to be the chivalry factor," says Phyllis Jo Baunach, a lawyer who has written a book on mothers in prison. "Now people are beginning to regard men and women as equals - in all ways."

The boom is causing problems for states. Here in California, officials have been sending female prisoners to the men's prison at Avenal to help relieve overcrowding at the state's two main women's institutions. …