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Bedford Hills Correctional Facility is New York State's maximum-security prison for women. Many of the women housed within its electronically secure fences are long termers, having 6 or more years to serve on their minimum sentences before they can even appear before the parole board for release consideration. Bedford Hills is also the state's reception and classification center for women, accepting into the state prison system more than 3,000 women a year, sorting and distributing these new women between various prison facilities across the state. As the superintendent (or warden) of Bedford Hills, I have overall responsibility for the security, administration, and programs provided at this facility and have acted in this capacity since 1984. During the early 1980s, the reception center for women received closer to 250 new women a year, and the Bedford facility's capacity was about 400 - a phenomenal rate of growth that has been felt throughout the prisons and jails in this country. In March 1995, 720 women were confined at Bedford Hills.
Over and over during recent years, we hear of the ever-burgeoning numbers of incarcerated women. This trend is reflected across the nation at both the state and local levels. The American Correctional Association's (ACA) Task Force on the Female Offender (1990, p. 5) notes that the female population has had a greater percentage increase than has the male population each year since 1981. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (1991, p. 1), in its Special Report: Women in Prison, notes that the number of women under state and federal prison jurisdiction had grown by more than 27,000 since 1980, an increase of more than 200%. In looking at state prison systems, the report finds that the rate of growth for female inmates exceeded that for males in each year since 1981. In fact, from 1980 to 1989, the male state prison population increased by 112% whereas the female population increased 202%. In New York State alone, the number of women under state custody more than tripled during the period from 1982 to the end of 1990, increasing from approximately 800 to 2,700 (New York State Department of Correctional Services [DOCS], 1991, p. 2).
Immarigeon and Chesney-Lind (1992) point out that, even in the face of a rapidly growing prison population, women still represent only a small proportion (roughly 5%) of that population. Further, women commit far fewer serious or violent offenses than do men, and they return to prison at a lower rate. These authors argue, along with other researchers, that female offenders commit crimes that, although unacceptable, pose little threat to the physical safety of the community (p. 9). Despite the fact that the woman offender population was growing at a faster rate than the male offender population, the growth has never been found to be related to the seriousness of women's offenses.
The numbers of women caught up in the criminal justice system for property crimes and drug possession accounted for the increased growth of women in custody. The nation's "war on drugs," coupled with changing law enforcement and judicial practices with regard to drugs, played a major part in this dramatic change. In other words, women are not being sent to prison in increasing numbers because they are committing more, or even more serious, crimes but rather because we made a change in the way we do business. In fact, the proportion of women in prison for violent crimes has actually dropped (Immarigeon & Chesney-Lind, 1992, p. 3).
IMPACT OF INCARCERATION ON WOMEN AND CHILDREN
The ACA's Task Force on the Female Offender (1990) found that the average woman offender is responsible for young children and is usually a single parent/primary caretaker of the children. The average woman offender comes from a single-parent home and often has other incarcerated family members. The most difficult consequence of imprisonment for women is to endure the pain of separation from their children. Many women feel tremendous guilt over this separation, and children, in their way, wonder what they have done to create a situation where their mothers are taken or sent away. It is clear that both mothers and children grapple with how to maintain their bonds while separated. They discuss sending kisses through the mail or watching the same moon at night, and some run away to talk to their mothers. Children just do not give up on their mothers because they are in prison.
It is important to support parenting by listening to mothers, by getting mothers talking about their experiences, by providing educational experiences about parenting issues, and by providing opportunities for mothers to talk to teachers and school counselors. In the visiting room, it is important to provide child caregivers so that a woman can have some time outside of a child's heating to …