Another case of shrinking the gender gap: prison
Programs aren’t always in place to help the growing population of female inmates.
By CAMILLE C. SPENCER
Published February 9, 2007
BROOKSVILLE — Outside the department store, Angela Wynn waited in the car.
Meanwhile, her boyfriend stole whatever he could get his hands on. Silverware. Perfume. Sweaters.
He would smuggle the goods out and hand them to Wynn. She would return minutes later, telling the cashier she forgot her receipt and request a refund.
“I hung out with a guy, and that was his thing — the bad boy image,” Wynn said. “I never thought it would take over me.”
For years, Wynn, a petite brunet with deep brown eyes, played accomplice to a variety of boyfriends, racking up grand theft and forgery charges. Except for a short five-month sentence, judges slapped her on the wrist and gave her probation.
But when she landed at the Hernando County Correctional Facility in 2004 for a second — and much longer — stint in prison, Wynn joined a skyrocketing number of incarcerated women.
While the number of men and women in Florida’s general population increased at similar rates from 1977 to 2005, the population of women in prison grew 600 percent, compared to 345 percent for men.
Unlike their male counterparts, experts say, most women are being incarcerated for low-level crimes. Prostitution. Cocaine possession. Forgery. Writing bad checks. And more often than not, these crimes are committed with their boyfriends or husbands.
Experts call it “the girlfriend problem.”
“Women are in very low-level positions. They are making the drops. They are the mules, holding and carrying stuff,” said Brenda Smith, a professor at American University College of Law in Washington, D.C. “They aren’t the people running it. They are the low-hanging fruit the police can get.”
Some compare it to the Tammy Wynette classic Stand By Your Man, even if sticking around means prison time.
“Women are less likely to rat out the men they love,” said Sarah From of the Women’s Prison Association in New York, who recently wrote a report on female prisoners.
But an increased presence of female prisoners is overburdening an underbudgeted prison system. As women adjust to being treated like men during the sentencing process, they are often left behind in prison rehabilitation programs.
Equal, but fair?
Though the number of female prisoners in Florida has fluctuated since 1977 (the earliest numbers kept by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics), 1986 marked the start of the first consistent five-year increase in the women’s prison population. That year, a law was enacted that attempted to level the playing field among men and women in the criminal justice system.
In 1986, federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines were established through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. By law, judges were required to impose minimum sentences on offenders based on the quantity and type of drug involved in a crime.
Supporters of mandatory minimums say enacting the law bridges disparities that used to exist in sentencing.
“The idea is, you shouldn’t have a shorter sentence because you drew a liberal judge,” said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a former federal prosecutor. “I don’t think it made sense to cut people breaks because they aren’t the more dominant member of the team. Mandatory minimums create a floor, and you can’t go below it.”
But women like Wynn, who admits her guilt and involvement in her offenses, often became casualties of the new law.
Before she became a heroin addict and amateur thief, Wynn, 40, was a ballet dancer who dreamed of an ice-skating career. She grew up with her mother. The two did drugs together. Wynn started dating men she labeled “drifters.” Like her, they relocated often and found a common bond committing crimes.
She became angry at the world and expected a free ride in life, including the criminal justice system.
“I heard women say it’s their first offense and they got sent to prison,” Wynn said. “I went to county jail. I was given break after break.”
Before the new law, judges were inclined to sympathize with a woman who may have played a secondary role in a crime, and sentenced them less aggressively.
“Women want equality,” said Laura Bedard, deputy secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections. “Not just in the workplace, but also in crime and punishment. That’s had a tremendous impact. Twenty years ago, a woman had to appear before a judge three or four times before she got a prison sentence.”
Not anymore, said Meda Chesney-Lind, a feminist and criminologist at the University of Hawaii. Chesney-Lind said women are caught in a pattern of “vengeful equity” as society pushes toward equality in the criminal justice system.
Often, she said, women are victims of “gender entrapment,” meaning they become involved in bad relationships that can lead to criminal activity.
Michelle Dennis, a Hernando inmate, is among them. Once, she allowed a boyfriend to sell drugs from a room in her house. Another time, she banked drug money for a boyfriend through a check forging scheme. She also stole heavy equipment from construction sites for a man she loved, who she says sometimes abused her.
Chesney-Lind said the needs of women like Dennis are ignored.
“A lot of these sentencing reforms are gender-blind, assuming women have the same equalities that men have,” Chesney-Lind said. “They forget that women are mothers. It’s not call your lawyer. It’s call your babysitter.”
A new crop of female prisoners has correction officials scrambling to adjust to women’s needs. But a lack of funding and a sparsity of gender-specific prison programs nationwide has proved to be an obstacle.
Over the past six years, the Florida Department of Corrections has seen its programming budget, which includes prison programs for both men and women, decrease from $59-million during fiscal year 2000-01 to $42-million during fiscal year 2004-05.
In Florida, the programs that do exist are rooted in gender stereotypes.
The state’s women’s prisons offer cosmetology and fashion design classes. Men’s prisons offer carpentry or construction classes.
Wynn and Dennis both took drug rehabilitation classes, and Dennis got her high school degree in prison. But those are general programs that are offered to both men and women.
Nationwide, the few programs for female prisoners are often spearheaded by nonprofits. Some teach women how to repair strained relationships with family members, who experts say are more apt to stigmatize a female prisoner and avoid visiting them.
Some say corrections officials must begin addressing a cycle that some women offenders have fallen into: childhood trauma mixed with inadequate treatment of abuse leads to illegal activity, often with a boyfriend, to feed themselves or their children.
“Women offenders bring a unique set of circumstances,” said Laura Bedard, deputy secretary for the Department of Corrections. “They come in with mental illness, high rates of prior trauma and abuse, increased anxiety over leaving their children. Men have that, but not to the rates women have it.”
The increase of women in prison has corrections officials brainstorming gender-specific programming and evaluating changes.
“There was a change in society’s ideology on the purpose of what corrections is,” Bedard said. “I think we are starting to focus on changing an offender’s behavior and realizing that they are going to come out. Before, it was,
'Lock them up and throw away the key.’”
Women like Dennis hope to learn from a lifetime of mistakes.
“I’ve lost five and a half years of my life to prison,” said Dennis, 38. “I’m angry at myself. … My mom asks me where she went wrong. I tell her, 'I went wrong.’”
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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