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Column: Sent to Alabama for Crime of Being Female

New Haven, Conn.

This August, the Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to start shipping women out of its only prison for women in the Northeast, located in Danbury, Conn. — 70 miles from New York City, and in easy reach of visitors for the many prisoners who come from there.

Danbury (where Piper Kerman, who wrote Orange is the New Black, did her time) will soon have only 200 spots for women (in a separate low-security camp). The prison’s other 1,100 beds will go to men. Most of the women are slated to be sent to a new 1,800-bed facility in Aliceville, Ala. — 1,070 miles from New York City, a drive that takes nearly 16 hours.

Becoming the site of a new federal prison is good news for Aliceville, population 2,500. As a New York Times editorial explained last year, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., promoted the facility as an economic boost to the area. It cost the federal government $250 million.

But as the newspaper also commented, the government bought a “white elephant.” Aliceville is hard for anyone without a car to get to. There is no train station or airport nearby. Aliceville has no medical center or university, nor many lawyers, religious leaders or other service providers.

The federal Bureau of Prisons houses about 220,000 people. Fewer than 7 percent (about 14,500) are women, most of them sentenced for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses. Of the 116 facilities the bureau runs, 27 have some beds for women, and seven — counting Danbury — have been exclusively for women. Danbury is the only prison placement in the Northeast for women. The federal jails in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia are for pretrial detainees. Other federal facilities for women comparable to Danbury are many miles away, in West Virginia, Florida and Minnesota.

Getting women into Danbury — and into the Northeast — was a relatively recent and hard-fought change. In 1979, I testified before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives about the lack of attention paid to female federal prisoners, and the paucity of housing options for them. It took 15 more years of lobbying, along with steep growth in the numbers of women sent to prison, before Danbury opened its doors in 1994. In addition to proximity to their families, women gained access to a program that Yale Law School had begun in the 1970s to provide legal assistance to federal prisoners. In 1997, the situation of women prisoners seemed to brighten a bit when the Bureau of Prison s issued a new policy, committing itself to attending to women’s “different physical, social and psychological needs.”

But despite efforts by the National Association of Women Judges, the bureau has repeatedly refused to make good on that commitment. Time and again, it has refused to follow the lead of many states and create special programs for women with children, make visiting easier, or expand community placements, education, and job training.

Being moved far from home limits the opportunities of women being moved out of Danbury; it hurts them in prison and once they get out. Recent research from Michigan and Ohio documents that inmates who receive regular visits are less likely to have disciplinary problems while in prison and have better chances of staying out of prison once released.

The Bureau of Prisons knows this, as it recognizes the importance of “family and community ties” in its classification system. The bureau gives inmates points for family ties when assessing the degree of security in which to place individuals. Getting visits also counts toward qualifying for a transfer to a less secure facility.

Most women come to prison from households with children. According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than one-half of female federal prisoners have a child under the age of 18. Last month, the director of the federal prison system sent a memo to all inmates to announce that his staff was “committed to giving you opportunities to enhance your relationship with your children and your role as a parent.” In addition to letters and calls, he hoped that inmates’ families would bring their children to visit. “There is no substitute for seeing your children, looking them in the eye, and letting them know you care about them,” he wrote.

But for prisoners from New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the move to Aliceville closes off those possibilities. Placement in Aliceville also makes it harder for lawyers to see their clients and provide help on problems ranging from losing custody of children to challenging convictions.

What’s the justification for moving Danbury’s women to Aliceville? To make the argument for the large new complex, the Bureau of Prison claimed that Aliceville would benefit women, because the existing facilities for them were about 55 percent over capacity. What the bureau did not mention was that it planned to turn over women’s beds in Danbury to make room for lower security male inmates, also housed in overcrowded facilities.

The skyrocketing numbers of people in prison is a well-known tragedy. Adding to it is the isolation to which women at Aliceville are being condemned. The Bureau of Prisons itself describes women as mostly nonviolent and lower escape risks than men. Why not, therefore, keep Danbury open, as well as send women to community-based facilities near their families, and provide educational options, job training and treatment programs? Instead of taking a route consistent with its own policies, and newly announced commitments to parenting by prisoners, the government is sending hundreds of women on a long hard trip to Aliceville.

Judith Resnik is a professor of law at Yale Law School.