In California—as nationwide—women make up about seven percent of the prison population. Because of their small numbers, the plight of female prisoners is easily overlooked. This spring, Dui Hua staff members visited two women’s detention facilities in California—Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) in Chowchilla, California, and the women’s section of the San Francisco County Jail—to learn more about this often unnoticed population.

On the surface, these two institutions are a study in contrasts: VSPW is a massive, rural prison holding felons from all over the state, while the county jail is a smaller, urban facility housing local women who are in custody for an average of four months. But Dui Hua found striking similarities in the two places: both are part of larger systems designed for the custodial supervision of men, and both are staffed by dedicated administrators using innovative programs and approaches to rehabilitate the women in their custody and ease their transition back into free society.

Close-Up View of Massive Prison

Valley State Prison for Women houses almost 4,000 women in four facilities laid out on 640 acres. One of three women’s state prisons in California, VSPW is located southeast of San Francisco. Just across the street is the Central California Women’s Facility, which has the state’s only death row for women, and vies with VSPW as the prison with the largest population of female inmates in the United States.

On March 23, Executive Director John Kamm and Program Associate Tobias Smith accompanied Justice James Lambden from the California Court of Appeals on a visit to VSPW. They were escorted by then-Warden Tina Hornbeak, Lt. Michael Burns, and Associate Warden Laquitta Peterson, who gave them a full tour of the facility.

Although the architecture of VSPW is the same as a men’s prison, its character is very different. Prison staff explained that inmates in men’s prisons often cleave along racial lines and group themselves according to gang affiliations, forcing prison administrators to segregate housing units by race and to isolate gang leaders from the general population. Men’s prisons often also divide prisoners based on a classification system reflecting an inmate’s level of security risk. At VSPW, however, women of all races and security levels are housed together. Women do not organize themselves into gangs, instead assembling into groups that resemble extended families. Staff reported that violence is not the issue at VSPW as it is in men’s facilities, and only a few inmates are isolated in the Special Housing Unit for security reasons (23 women were in the unit at the time of the visit).

While VSPW doesn’t face the same security challenges as a men’s prison, it does face others. When Dui Hua visited, there were approximately 50 pregnant women housed at the prison. After giving birth, a mother is given 48 to 72 hours to be with her child, and then the child is turned over to social services to be placed with the inmate’s family or in foster care. Since the average length of a sentence at VSPW is 16 to 18 months, mothers have long waits before being reunited with their children, if they are at all. Still, women can see immediate family during extended overnight weekend visits. While this generous visiting policy reflects the prison’s concern for rehabilitation and re-entry into society, it’s also a result of the prison’s isolation in the middle of vast farmland—three hours from the San Francisco Bay Area and four hours from Los Angeles—which makes casual visits difficult.

Recidivism rates for women are lower than for men but still exceed 60 percent, so VSPW does what it can to help make sure women do not return after they are released. Until recently, over 2,000 inmates participated in educational and vocational programs that included everything from basic reading classes to licensing in cosmetology and opticianry. But with the state prison system in fiscal crisis, these programs have been cut considerably. Lack of funding has reduced available placements in drug treatment programs from 750 to 175. Likewise, academic and vocational programs, which once served 2,000 inmates at VSPW, were only providing services for about 500 prisoners at the time of the visit.

Short-Term Detention, Long-Term Goals

On May 27, Smith and Publications Manager Martin Witte visited the San Francisco County Jail #1 in downtown San Francisco. The women’s facility houses both women awaiting trial and those serving short sentences. Women make up about 10 percent of the San Francisco Jail population; about 200 women are in the facility on any given day.

Dui Hua staff were given a tour of the facility led by Sunny Schwartz, the program administrator for the San Francisco jail system since 1990. Schwartz is nationally recognized for innovative work that emphasizes responsibility, restorative justice, and active program participation by inmates. Upon entering the jail, almost every woman is placed in a program—typically drug treatment and counseling or an educational program.

A look at the demographics of the jail makes it clear why programming is a priority. According to a San Francisco Sheriff’s Department study, the average female inmate is an 18-to-25-year-old woman of color with a fourth- to sixth-grade reading level. Over 80 percent of women in the jail report a history of substance abuse, and 75 percent have children, with the majority having children under the age of five. Clearly, the challenges these women face do not cease upon their release.

Women in the jail live in secure pods in which groups of about 50 women eat, sleep, and take part in programs together. During the tour, Dui Hua staff were able to visit D Pod, which is devoted to an addiction treatment program called SISTERS (Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery). According to a 1996 study prepared for the jail by the University of California-San Francisco, the program “significantly reduces the likelihood that a woman will become arrested.” Moreover, rearrested participants commit significantly fewer drug offenses. Overall, the program saves the city an average of $4,500 dollars per inmate.

Administrators at both VSPW and the San Francisco jail emphasized that whether the treatment a woman receives behind bars will have a lasting effect depends largely on what happens in the crucial first hours after she returns to society. Women who move directly into re-entry facilities or transition seamlessly into treatment are much less likely to relapse and recidivate. With this in mind, in 2006 the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department opened the Women’s Reentry Center just around the corner from the jail downtown. The center provides a full array of social services for all incarcerated women, including drug treatment, employment counseling, medical care resources, and support and empowerment classes for crime and trauma survivors.

The program budget for the San Francisco jail system—both men’s and women’s facilities—is currently about $1 million per year, slightly more than one percent of the total jail operating budget. Belt-tightening measures continue to reduce resources for programs, halving the funding for SISTERS, for example. However, as San Francisco faces a 55 percent recidivism rate among women offenders, cutting programs proven to reduce repeat offenses may not turn out to be such a bargain after all.

Dui Hua thanks the following people for their help in arranging and hosting the two visits: Justice James Lambden and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Susan Breall; Tina Hornbeak, Michael Burns, and Laquitta Peterson at VSPW; and Sunny Schwartz, Karen Levine, Leslie Levitas, and Jacqueline Gordon at the San Francisco Jail.