Inmate Jane Doe
If one is to believe all the reports that the media broadcast or prints, one would think that 99% of all offenders were male. With the exception of a few high profile crimes committed by women, a lot isn’t really known about women in prison and this is where the misconceptions begin. Being an offender within the Virginia Department of Corrections for the last 19 years I’ve seen a population explosion that does not appear to be slowing down. Not only does society in general not understand why this phenomenon is happening but apparently the Virginia Department of Corrections doesn’t know how to address this issue or maybe they understand it and are exploiting this explosion to create jobs for Virginians. The Virginia Department of Corrections generally makes decisions, policies, and procedures based on the behaviors of the male population which immediately puts the female population at a disadvantage when it comes to how they can get decisions, policies and procedures changed or adjusted to address their specific needs.
Many are not aware that the female offenders within the Virginia Department of Corrections do not have the same rights as the male offenders especially in a system that is predominantly geared towards male offenders. For example, programs formatted to give offenders job skills in which they can obtain employment after release, are basically geared towards the males. This in turn increases the recidivism rate for female offenders. But don’t get the impression that the female offenders are totally victims of this system. In fact just as they adapted to survive on the outside many enter the prison system only to use it to their advantage with money, sex, and scandals.
Many come into the Virginia Department of Corrections without jobs skills and leave with many skills they have no intention of ever using because as mothers with children waiting for their return, they most often leave the prison system for the social services system. Is this the average image of the female offenders? Yes. Majority of the female population dropped out of school to have children and have never worked because they relied on the welfare system to provide for their families. The average female offender is no different from your mother, sister, friend or neighbor, they just happen to all live in prison with more restrictions that cause them to adapt and survive until they are home again where they adapt again to survive through the services offered to them on the outside. The minority of female offenders are high school graduates who had a steady work history before incarceration. Then there are those who are college graduates who are faced with how we will adjust to employment seeking with criminal histories.
The female offender population within the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) has increased 500% since I entered it in 1991. When I entered the VADOC there was only one state institution for female offenders. Today there are five and there is a constant need for more beds everyday. The cause of this explosion has various explanations but the main causes from my point of view is recidivism, the lack of equal rights for female offenders, the lack of programs appropriate for female offenders, lack of drug rehabilitation programs (the VADOC is designed for punishment, not drug rehabilitation) and of course the main reason many women are in prison today; co-dependency.
So how did the VADOC make room for this population explosion? They just turned a few of the male institutions into institutions for women which were not designed with the female in mind. In 1997 the VADOC finished building the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW); an institution for women in Troy, VA which was to house the female population with long term sentences and be a facility to address medical needs. This institution opened in 1998 and since changing wardens in 2003 the powers that be have been trying to make this institution a maximum security institution but most of this institution is not designed to house maximum security offenders as specified by the VADOC and the Justice Department. Mainly this institution lacks wet cells that maximum security institutions require to keep maximum security offenders locked down on a 23:1 basis. For example, the Administration at FCCW has a new policy of making us keep our doors locked with the exception of 5 minutes every half hour during the dayroom hours. Not only is this a security risk for us if we are caught outside our cells while a fight is in progress but, this is unrealistic for the female offender because we have different bodily issues than the male population. Maybe we can make our bladders adjust to this type of strict schedule but no one can absolutely control intestinal functions or biological issues unique to only the female population. This is also causing problems with our sleep patterns, many are caught behind a locked door after waking up after being asleep the last three or fours hours only to find that they missed the “cell break” period. This frustrates those in authority who greatly desire to make FCCW a maximum security prison which in turns frustrates the female population here because the constant changes in decisions, policies, and procedures that violate our rights. There is an ongoing battle between the FCCW Administration and the female population. When changes are made, we complain, the Administration says they have the right to make changes, we in turn write the VADOC and some officials will deny that those changes were made or take sides with the Administration thinking that that will stop the stem of complaints. Our last resort is the media in which we and our families have come to rely on a great deal lately because the moment the media exposes any complaints about unfair changes in decisions, policies, and procedures; the FCCW Administration denies the charges and then quietly changes back to old policies until they come up with another bright idea.
Not All is Equal
Many don’t understand the great disparity of rights between the male and female populations. The male offender pay scale goes far beyond what a female is allowed to earn. Most vocational programs offered to female offenders are geared more towards the male population. Yes, we have Software, Cosmetology, Printing, and Computer Aided Drafting. But other programs such as Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC, and Building and Maintenance require women to complete a two year apprenticeship program before they can join a union. This is unrealistic for women who have to return home to a family they will have to provide for. FCCW offers employment through the tailor shop but it is no comparison to the employment opportunities offered to the male population. The male institutions offer employment in welding, tailor shop, upholstery, forklift licensing, construction work with outside contractors and other various employment opportunities. These in turn allow the male offender to make as much as a $1 ,000 or more a month whereas; the females are allowed to make up to $400 a month at most. And there are only a handful of those who do make more than $300 a month because there aren’t that many jobs within the female population compared to those offered to the male population.
When the male offenders hid weapons in their hair, the VADOC decided to make all offenders cut their hair even though there has never been an incident of a female offender hiding a weapon in her hair. When it comes to recreational rights the male offender rights are never violated. Our rights to recreational programming are constantly violated on a daily basis. We have the right to have (not be scheduled and then cancelled) recreation 3 hours a week but this rarely happens. We have a weight room that is constantly closed to us. We have exercise equipment which is closed off to us because no one wants to pull this equipment back out after visitations on the weekends and holidays. We only have access to play basketball, volleyball, softball or walking during recreation even though offender funds were used to pay for other equipment and games we are no longer allowed to access. Our aerobics classes which were in high demand and ran successfully for two years were discontinued because our recreation supervisor is “on military leave” however this is just a statement that this administration uses to justify not allowing us to have aerobics because our recreation supervisor actually switched from reserve status to active status to become a recruiter. Did I mention that this is also a medical facility in which there is a high number or offenders with medical issues related to obesity? These are just some of our rights that are constantly violated.
Many think that offenders sit around playing cards, watching TV, and drinking Coke-Cola all day. This is true for many but not the majority here. Most work or go to school because it’s the only form of financial support they have. Most with long terms work to break the monotony. For the most part many sign up for any educational program to support themselves while incarcerated. But this system is flawed. Many should not be paid to get a high school education because many exploit this system by continually failing the LIP (Literacy Incentive Program) or the GED (General Education Diploma) tests. Why, because it’s easier to attend a class than to work especially if you never plan on establishing a work history. Once you obtain your GED you’ll have to get a job and many don’t see that as an option. It’s easier to stay in the LIP class for 15 or 17 years. Yes, we have women here who’ve been in the LIP program for more than 17 years. This is a sad statistic for us. Women who relied on the welfare system before incarceration will equate the LIP or GED program as easier to obtain financial support than to actually work.
This brings me to the issue of the vocational programs which need to be adjusted in the VADOC for female offenders. For one there should be more than one software program to facilitate a greater turn-around rate. Skills obtained through this program are more realistic for females. They can go right out and obtain employment with these skills. No offender should be allowed to enter a vocational job until they obtain their GED. There is currently a policy stating that an offender must be in LIP to obtain employment but it is not utilized. As for other programming, the female population usually exploits these as a way to see their “girlfriends.” The VADOC has to realize that the only way to slow down the recidivism rate is to offer more programs that will assist the female offender immediately upon release. There has to be more housing programs for females upon release also, most of the housing programs only take male offenders. They also have to make decisions, policies and procedures for the female institutions separately from the male institutions. Will this cause more rights to be violated between the two? Not if they specifically address the needs between the two along with the rights or privileges. Maybe more female offenders will appropriately utilize programs if they were realistically designed to address their needs after release.
The recidivism rate among the female population increases every year. This is largely due to the VADOC focusing primarily on punishment instead of drug rehabilitation. A lot of women come to prison as drug addicts. They are given a sentence and then most return because they go right back to abusing drugs. The sad thing I’ve come to realize is that most women leave here with the false impression that they are drug free because they’ve been incarcerated for years. The reality is that they were probably arrested during the addiction, and with no access to drugs in the VADOC (for the female population anyway) they build this belief that they have kicked their habits. They fail to realize that they had to cease because of force not choice so when they return home they go right back to taking drugs because it was never their intention to stop, they were just arrested.
The other cause of recidivism is the lack of financial support. Most are expected to earn a living after living off the welfare system all their life. When faced with having to seek employment (something most have never done) and the belief of businesses not wanting to hire ex-offenders this becomes a big issue. Many can not live off the minimum wages most ex-offenders are offered so, they go right back to committing crimes. Once an offender has paid their debt to society many would think society would want these individuals to come out and become a contributing member of society but this is far from the truth. Many don’t think that ex-offenders deserve a second chance. Either way society is going to take the burden of providing for these individuals whether it’s through taxes for the prison system or social services.
Love Sex and Scandal
You’ve heard all about the homosexual relationships in prison. Within the female institutions this is a major problem and causes 95% of all the altercations at FCCW. Women are so codependent on relationships that they seek out any relationship offered to them once inside the prison system. They go from abusive relationships with men to abusive relationships with women. We call this “gay for the stay” because many women are married or maintaining a heterosexual relationship while incarcerated. Many of the women here have that “if you can’t be with the one you want, be with somebody” mentality. They engage in sexual relationships with women they don’t know and who may have any kind of disease (this is a medical facility after all).
Not all women who enter the prison system engage in homosexual relationships. Many seek and often find male staff that is willing to engage in relationships with female offenders. Most relationships between offenders and staff are often not reported. Only the relationships that end in pregnancy are more likely to cause a media scandal. These relationships are often mutual and would have continued if not for the unplanned pregnancy. Relationships that are reported by offenders are often a scandal within itself. Many of the female offenders will seek and initiate relationships with staff with the intention of reporting this relationship in the hopes of obtaining a monetary lawsuit against the VADOC or being released in exchange for money. Being an offender in the VADOC has allowed me to observe this practice more times than I’d like to recall. This does not shed a positive light on those who seek out mutual relationships. Am I an advocate for relationships between staff and offenders? YES! Being an offender who has served 19 years so far I am definitely an advocate of heterosexual relations between staff and offenders because I do not believe in homosexual relationships even though they exist in the world and I choose not to abstain. To each her own as the saying goes. I may engage in relationships with staff but it would be a greater scandal for me to get caught than to keep that information to myself. I would prefer that my mother not know that I have sexual relationships with men I barely know. Most women could care less. When the objective is to find a way to financially support themselves during their incarceration or desperately wanting to get out of their remaining time to serve, most would do anything including exploiting the fact that they can use sex to obtain it. I have yet to hear of anyone being forced into a sexual relationship with a member of staff. I’ll never swear that it couldn’t happen but more often than not, the female offender is the initiator and the staff member the willing participant.
While the complaints I’ve written about in this article are of importance there are many other issues that the VADOC should address when it comes to the female population. They must be able to provide adequate medical services to us without denying us the right to be active members of our treatment option selection. They have to be more considerate when serving food that is often spoiled because of improper storage practices. Improper storage practices are just as much a money mismanagement issue as serving food that is inedible. Stop denying that this institution does not serve spoiled food. It does! Find a more efficient way to store food properly. This is a total waste of money, especially in an environment where many don’t have a choice on what food is served during meals. They must provide better recreational programming especially in an institution that is considered a medical facility. The obesity, hypertension, and diabetic rates are increasing at an alarming rate at this facility. That alone should warrant yoga and aerobics classes to defray the cost of medical services provided. The medical services within the VADOC need to be more preventive then reactive. In closing, my opinion is that the Virginia Department of Correction has to find a way to ensure the security of their institutions and society while ensuring the safety and rights of offenders. I’m sure they can achieve this without violating most of the civil rights of female or male offenders.