At breakfast with friends on the Monday morning after Christmas, I heard a piece of information that scared me silly. Well, two pieces of information if you count Mad Cow Disease, a subject that demands its own full-column treatment in the near future, once I finish reading the books Fast Food Nation and American Mad Cow.
The other datum that has cost me sleep since then is the number of women currently housed in New Mexico's prison system.
I don't know how I so completely lost track of this, but in the early '80s, when I was still teaching an occasional class on criminology, the last time I checked on it, the number of women imprisoned in this state had never gotten above 30 at any point.
So when I heard that there are now over 600 women incarcerated in the privately-operated New Mexico prison for women, I dropped my bagel and splashed decaf all over the table.
How could that number have jumped? I mean we haven't had an epidemic of liquor store hold-ups or thrill murders by all-girl gangs or anything remotely capable of explaining that leap in the number of convicts. I suppose that after the administration of Gov. Gary Johnson made prison construction New Mexico's chief economic stimulus, we should expect some significant growth in the female inmate population. But hey, a 2,000 percent increase? In just 20 years?
To justify separating a mother from her children, with all the consequent problems that creates for the next generation and for the families involved right now, we've got to be talking major criminal activity, right? Only behavior so dangerous to civilized society that it simply cannot be dealt with any other way besides locking these women up behind high walls would explain taking such a risk for the kids involved.
But it turns out most are in for technical violations of their parole, stuff like driving without a license while on parole—which produces a revocation and another stint in the slammer. So to teach a lesson or something, we'll stick back into the Grants facility a woman (most are mothers) who could have been disciplined in some less-Draconian fashion for her infraction. Saner, less-grotesque alternatives might include a week of community service or enrollment in drivers' improvement or parental skills programs or similar pennywise measures.
But our one-size fits-all approach forces us to pay Correction Corporation of America $40,000 a year to keep her inside the Grants Big House, pay a foster family $5,000 per year to take care of each of her kids (or a grandmother $3,000 in TANF for doing the same thing) and in the process runs the risk of those kids engaging in anti-social behavior when they grow up without the benefit of parental upbringing.
Why do we do this? Why are we holding in lock-up right now probably 400 women who could be living safely at home with their kids, taking classes and working in productive jobs, paying taxes, supervising their children and paying whatever debt to society they owe by making sure the cycle of crime is broken, not perpetuated?
The simple answer seems to be that because we have only one women's facility (with a large capacity and no disincentive for filling it to the brim) we have never used a classification system which makes sense for female offenders.
For males who are shipped back and forth among the various levels of facilities, it is crucial to differentiate among the maximum, medium and minimum security risks each one poses so they can be matched up appropriately with the program they need.
But women all go in the same place so no attention is paid to finding out what really is needed by each one. And we are paying the cost at the other end of their terms. They leave the institutions only minimally better-prepared for life outside than when they went in ... but with many more times the problems facing them that did when they first broke the law.
Jobs and housing are hard to find. Kids are depressed and angry at having been abandoned or estranged. Boyfriends or husbands are often part of the drug-using culture that got them in trouble in the first place, so they are faced with choosing between their own health and someone who offers companionship.
It is not surprising that recidivism rates among New Mexico's women offenders are sky-high. They will remain that way until we start paying real attention to what goes on in our prison and until we begin demanding that women get classified in a realistic fashion, have programs developed that meet their needs and have supportive pre- and post-discharge services.
Anything less will only add to the incredible growth in the number of our adult women locked up behind bars. It's one social problem we can absolutely do something about ... and actually wind-up saving money in the process.