Last January, an alternative custody program was made law in California. So far 10 women have been released early and by the end of the next year, the California Department of Corrections expects 500 women to be back in their communities. The goal? To thin out the state’s overcrowded prisons and to help reunite families. KALW’s Nicole Jones reports on how this early release program is rolling out one year later.
NICOLE JONES: A handful of prison inmates who are also mothers came home last month. They’re not done with their sentences. But they have qualified for the Alternative Custody Program. It’s a new program that could help California both meet its court-ordered prison reduction, and help struggling families.
VELDA DOPSON-DAVIS: Normally the female is the primary caregiver before being sent to prison and actually, they continue to parent from behind the wall.
Velda Dopson-Davis is Chief Deputy Warden at Valley State Prison for Women. She’s also the team leader for the Alternative Custody Program. There are over 8,000 women in prison in California. And about 6,400 of them are parents.
DOPSON-DAVIS: This was a goal to get them back into the community and allow them an opportunity to interact with their children and reenter society more easily.
The program was designed by the legislature to help struggling families break the cycle of generational incarceration. It allows primary caregivers, mainly mothers, to serve only a portion of their sentence. Once released, they serve out the rest of their time on state parole.
Karen Shain is the policy director at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children based in San Francisco. She says the program is a smart move for the state.
KAREN SHAIN: The vast majority of women in prison are there for non-violent crimes, mainly drug-related crimes. Most women, 60-80% of women in prison, had custody of their children before they went in. They’re mothers of dependent children, so sending a woman to prison – it may be a great punishment, but it doesn’t look at what the impact is on a community.
Based on the bill’s language, 4,000 inmates were supposed to qualify for early release in 2011. In reality, CDCR released 10. The state says it hopes to release 500 by the end of next year. But for Shain, that’s way too slow.
SHAIN: There are a lot of problems and the Alternative Custody Program is really not equipped to deal with those.
Inmates must meet specific criteria to participate, like being non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenders. They must have a home or program to go to once released. But with no funding attached to the bill, qualified inmates are required to find their own transitional housing. Shain says those requirements are so strict the program has come to a standstill.
SHAIN: People can say they want to do it. They totally qualify and there’s nothing for them to do. Some of them don’t have housing or homes and they are trying to get into drug treatment programs, halfway houses, which are very few and far between. Basically what happens is women who have a husband at home, who have so-called stable household – they’re much more likely to qualify.
But Shain says those families that already have stable parents at home, aren’t the ones the state should be most concerned about.
SHAIN: And it’s not really fair for the vast majority of women who are in prison, who have multiple convictions, who don’t have the kind of houses that the Department of Corrections would necessarily want them to be in.
Realignment, one of the biggest changes in the state’s criminal justice system, transferred the custody of thousands of inmates, and in only a couple months. Medical parole, on the other hand, which only affected 40 inmates, took almost a year to roll out. CDCR’s Velda Dopson-Davis says the state is doing its best to implement the new Alternative Custody Program, but it’s been difficult.
DOPSON-DAVIS: This was very new and unique for us and to train the staff to realign duties. We all were loaned to this project, not assigned as a position, which means our work behind us continued. And then it’s quite a lengthy process to get to where you begin to implement something even though it is law, there are steps into getting into the books.
Realignment is already straining parolee services. And with the lack of funding for things like transitional housing and rehabilitation programs, CDCR staff has to be more cautious about the rate of inmates it releases early.
DOPSON-DAVIS: We have to make sure we are putting eligible participants out that are going to be successful, that desire to work toward that goal, that families are willing to work with them, that parole is able to supervise them, and that there are resources available to them to support their needs.
Despite delays, Dopson-Davis says there’s much excitement in prisons about the new program.
DOPSON-DAVIS: My team and I went out to Valley and talked to over 250 women and they were all ready to go right there: "Hook ‘em up, put my bracelet on, I can go home." And that excitement remains.
It remains to be seen whether that excitement leads to more parents coming home.
Nicole Jones is a reporter with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.