Breaking the cycleHawaii's fast-growing female prison population has triggered a state movement to change the way female offenders are treated.
Advocates for female inmates
say prisons should tailor more
programs to women
>> Female inmates breaking the cycle
>> Matlock Hale helps build new lives
>> Female offenders learn potential
By Helen Altonn
"The female offender population is ballooning in all states," said Marian Tsuji, state Department of Public Safety deputy director of corrections. "It's over 500 now in Hawaii. It's outrageous."
That is double the number of female prisoners here five years ago, according to Department of Public Safety figures. In 1980 only 30 women were locked up.
"It's really concerning," Tsuji said. "Women comprise 6 to 7 percent of the national prison population. In Hawaii it's 10 percent."
About 250 offenders are confined at the Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua. Others are spread among other state correctional facilities, the Central Oklahoma Correctional Facility or transitional programs.
"Women are no longer invisible in our corrections system," said Barbara Bloom, criminal justice consultant, researcher and assistant professor, Department of Criminal Justice Administration, Sonoma State University.
More than 1 million women are in some form of criminal justice supervision in the United States, she said.
"And the rate of increase for women in every part of our correctional system ... has surpassed the rate of increase for male offenders every year for over a decade."
Tsuji said Hawaii's drug laws have "backfired" because many women sell drugs for a man or have serious addictions, and arresting officers and judges have no options.
Women have shorter prison stays, but many return because of inadequate programs and treatment both in prison and after release, Tsuji said.
Prison programs are tailored for the majority of inmates, who are men, when women have different problems and needs, she pointed out.
"Most officers are trained to deal with medium-security male offenders, potentially violent, big, hulking males."
Training covers inappropriate sexual contact and manipulative behavior of female offenders, Tsuji said. But little attention is given to health, education, economic, domestic abuse, parental or other issues related to women, she said.
Lorraine Robinson, director of Matlock Hale, a community furlough and treatment program, said, "The thing is to get to them before trauma, before they get into this cycle."
She stressed the importance of working with children and families at risk before they wind up in the criminal justice system.
Substance abuse is the driving factor for more than 95 percent of female offenders, coupled with poverty and social factors, the officials said.
"We talk about being tough on crime, but what we're doing is being stupid on crime," Robinson said.
"It becomes criminal to be a substance abuser, and it's really a public health issue, and we're not doing anything to approach it ... we're just warehousing people."
Children follow their families, Robinson added. "We have the distinction in Hawaii of three generations of 'ice' addicts in the same family."
Tsuji said female offenders generally reach ninth- and 10th-grade levels, then drop out because of an unbearable abuse situation. "I just want to cry when I listen to the stories of abuse by husbands, fathers, stepbrothers, brothers. It's a wonder they make it through."
They self-medicate with drugs to deal with the abuse, which leads to crimes, Tsuji said.
Bloom has been working nationally and with Hawaii's Department of Public Safety to develop more appropriate programs for female offenders.
During a recent interview here, she said the National Institute of Corrections has cooperative agreements with states as part of a Women's Initiative to improve gender responses, strategies and practices for women in the criminal justice system.
Hawaii sent a delegation to a National Women Offender Symposium convened by the NIC and Office of Justice Programs in Washington, D.C., in December 1999.
A state symposium, "Treat the Women, Save the Children," was held Nov. 29-Dec. 1 last year on Kauai. Groups were formed to work on various issues, such as more appropriate programs in the facilities and what female offenders perceive as their needs.
Women generally have custody of children if men are incarcerated, but if mom goes to prison, kids usually end up with grandma, auntie or Child Protective Services, Tsuji pointed out.
"We've got to break the cycle of more drug use and tougher sentencing," she said. "It is definitely an intergenerational thing, even more so for girls and moms."
A U.S. News and World Report survey asked girls in juvenile facilities if their mothers had been or were incarcerated, and found "not just two, but sometimes three generations of women were in prison," she said.
Bloom said "seeds have been planted" in Hawaii to begin changes.
Advocates urged the Legislature to put the concept of gender-responsive programming for female offenders into law, pointing out that while Public Safety Director Ted Sakai and Tsuji are supportive, people often change with elections.
Kat Brady, Community Alliance on Prisons coordinator, said parity for women is important so they can have a range of programs similar to those for male inmates to develop marketable skills for jobs. "Workline options (in WCCC) are basically sewing or the kitchen."
A bill was passed calling for parity for female offenders, providing for development of model programs and asking that annual reports be made to the Legislature.
"But the real need is out in the community," Tsuji said, and no money was provided for community programs.
She said the department will look at programming to make sure it is gender-responsive. "We'll see what we can do about consolidating, trying to be a little more efficient with things, and we may be able to reallocate some resources toward women."
She said the department is seeking proposals for substance abuse treatment and other programs at the Women's Community Correctional Center.
WCCC has expanded a structured therapeutic community from 15 to 50 beds, she said, and it plans a 15-bed transition unit for women to work back into the community gradually.
On the national front, Hawaii is one of three states selected by the NIC to develop a new classification system for women. Tsuji, among those working on the project, said they expect to lower the classification level for women offenders so they can participate in a broader range of activities.
The transition from prison to the community is one of the biggest hurdles, Tsuji said.
"All women are going home at some point. We would like to keep them engaged in some community activity or vocational training, so once they're paroled they can continue their education, so they don't have to go through a transition adjustment."