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Shutdown keeps female prisoners closer to home--for now

Unless activists and Democratic senators prevail, the real-life women who inspired Orange Is The New Black will be even further from their families.
Cori Walters, 32, (R) hugs her daughter Hannah Walters, 6, at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California May 5, 2012.
Cori Walters, 32, (R) hugs her daughter Hannah Walters, 6, at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California May 5, 2012.

The federal government shutdown has very few silver linings, particularly for women, but here’s one: the women in the federal women’s prison in Danbury, CT., are staying put, at least for now.

That’s a relief to the activists and Democratic senators who have fiercely opposed the planned move of the Connecticut women’s prison to Aliceville, AL, arguing it would tear families in the Northeast apart. They now have more time to make their case to the Bureau of Prisons.

“What we know is that the best way to reintegrate a prisoner back into the community is to allow them to stay in touch with their family throughout their incarceration,” Senator Chris Murphy told MSNBC. “That’s especially true for women, because they’re very often leaving young children behind.”  Sixty percent of the inmates in Danbury have children under 21.

Danbury prison is where “Orange is the New Black” author Piper Kerman did time; its most recent famous prisoner was Lauryn Hill, released last week. For many prisoners who lack those women’s means, being relocated to rural Alabama could be devastating, Kerman argued in an August New York Times op-ed. “Despite distance, razor-wire fences and prison walls, many families of inmates fight to stay intact,” she wrote. “This added geographic separation may as well be a second sentence for these women.”

After a postponement spurred by the opposition of nine senators, including both from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, the move from Danbury was set to begin October 7. But late yesterday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons informed both senators from Connecticut that the relocation had been postponed.

That may buy them time to find an alternative that would keep female prisoners from the Northeast closer to their families. Senator Richard Blumenthal told MSNBC that he has requested a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversees the federal Bureau of Prisons. “As a former prosecutor I can tell you that this kind of separation is simply very misguided and wrongheaded criminal justice policy,” Blumenthal said. “It creates a greater likelihood of criminal activity both by the inmates who are separated from families who would support and assist in their education.”

In a letter responding to the senators’ objections, the director of the Bureau of Prisons wrote, “This conversion will allow us to realize substantial reductions in the crowding rates at low security female institutions, while also providing some relief to our overcrowded male low security institutions.” But Murphy questioned why the Alabama facility could not simply be converted to a men’s prison, given that converting Danbury would leave no federal women’s prisons in the Northeast, the country’s most densely populated region.

According to the Bureau of Prisons letter, at least 391 women in the Danbury prison have given an address in the Northeast.  (The actual number may be much higher, since the 447 women currently serving in Danbury who are not U.S. citizens are housed “based on factors other than their identified address.”) Some of those women will now be moved to facilities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and a small number may stay at Danbury’s smaller prison camp facility, “to the extent there is capacity there.” The state that sends the most inmates to Danbury is New York, with 92 current inmates hailing from it, but that’s followed by Texas, with 73, meaning that not all the women would be further from their families if moved to Alabama.

According to a 2009 report by the Sentencing Project, “in 2007 there were 1.7 million children in America with a parent in prison, more than 70% of whom were children of color.” The children of incarcerated fathers are more far likely to live with their mothers, whereas the children of incarcerated women tend to live with other relatives or in foster care. The same report noted that these mothers are actually seeing their children less frequently since 1997: “Monthly contact has decreased 28%, while those who report never having contact with their children has increased 17%.” The reason? More incarcerated parents are being put in faraway prisons. In 2004, 85% of parents in federal prison were placed more than 100 miles from home.

Being even further from their families will have a practical as well as emotional impact on the incarcerated women, according to the Bureau of Prisons’ letter: “Family visits are a factor in reviewing inmates’ custody scores, which impact their overall security level and the range of institutions where they can be housed.”

Another option, which Kerman touted in her op-ed, is to allow women who plead guilty to felonies but meet certain benchmarks to remain in their homes under regular supervision, an alternative that also happens to be a lot cheaper.

So far, though, the energy is focused on keeping the status quo from getting worse. Senator Murphy wasn’t particularly optimistic.  ”The Bureau of Prisons has been pretty hardheaded about this issue,” he said. “They clearly want to proceed with this transfer, and I’m not sure that they’re going to listen to anything short of a statutory change,” meaning a law through Congress to keep Danbury as is. With the current budget impasse and Congressional standoff, that’s not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, the women of Danbury wait.