Friday, February 23, 2007
Putting a human face on prison statistics
Approximately 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than in any other country in the world. My assignment from CNN was to put a human face on this number so we can better understand the implications of putting so many people in prison. The result is a three-part series that aired on "360" this week:

* Youth behind bars
* Stopping the revolving door
* Women in prison

As I dug into these stories, I came across some shocking numbers: Half of inner-city boys drop out of high school and 6 in 10 will spend some time in prison during their lives, according to the New York Times; also, of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners released every year roughly 50 percent can be expected to return within three years, according to a Department of Justice study. But perhaps most shocking are the numbers concerning women and prison:

* The women's prison population has grown 757 percent from 1977 through 2005, according to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice
* 70 percent the women in prison or under correctional supervision are mothers, according to the Department of Justice
* 1.3 million children are affected, according to the Department of Justice

I'm not sure what I expected for a story about women in prison, but I have to say right off the bat that I had no idea it would be about mothers and their children. I was surprised to find that the majority of women behind bars are mothers who are very often the primary caretaker for their children. I hadn't thought so many children would be affected. I also had no idea that, according to the Women's Prison Association, 5,000-10,000 women enter prison already pregnant each year. Pregnant women are just not the visual that comes to mind when thinking about women behind bars.

One prison we visited, the Nebraska prison for women, is trying to address these issues head-on. When we arrived, the warden, John Dahm, escorted us inside the property. The first thing I noticed is that once we got past the gates and security the prison looked like a school campus. Within its confines, the minimum-security inmates are allowed to come and go to their scheduled classes and counseling programs. You can sense that the inmates are here, as the warden puts it, "As punishment, not for punishment." In other words, he focuses not just on retribution, but rehabilitation.

The prison also has a nursery. Seeing this, I had to keep reminding myself we were in a prison; at times, it seemed more like a halfway house or communal living situation for mothers and their newborns. The prison also has a flexible visitation policy for mothers with older children.

Deseray, an inmate in the general prison population, told us her 5-year-old son thought he was being punished because she was locked-up. She had to explain to him that, "No, mommy had done something wrong."

For those concerned about the future of Deseray's son, here's another disturbing statistic: According to Oregon's Correctional Department, a child with an incarcerated parent is five-to-six times more likely than other children to spend time in prison at some point in their lives.
Posted By Shola Lynch, Documentary Filmmaker: 12:17 PM ET
Thank you for highlighting the problem of women in prison. It would have been informative to see statistics on the kinds of crimes that are fueling the increase. If we bring this to light, we can then understand what work we need to do to protect these women and their children.
Posted By Anonymous Maureen, Bedminster, NJ : 1:17 PM ET
It's said for those children who are born to mothers in prison. They automatically start their life off without their mother.
Posted By Anonymous Nichole Robinson, Aurora, Colorado : 1:46 PM ET
I'm curious as to how many whites versus how many blacks are in prison? We are still a separate society and we need to close that gap if we want to see a reduction in the amount of people in prison.
Posted By Anonymous Nicki, Calgary, Alberta : 1:55 PM ET
Thank you so much for raising these issues -- the US record on incarceration is shocking in terms of human and financial cost, with very limited impact in terms of reducing crime rates. The waste of taxpayer dollars is sad. I hope AC 360 will continue to profile these human stories and keep the pressure on politicians to be more honest about crime policies that actually work.
Posted By Anonymous Mary Campbell, Ottawa, Canada : 2:11 PM ET
How dissappointing this report is. Motherhood has been my favorite role in life. When I think of a mother and child I visualize unconditional love and nuturing. Call me weird but I don't comprehend criminal activity associated with motherhood. How sad and unfortunate for all parties involved. A mother and child relationship should be sacred and pure. What is the cause of the rise of women who are incarcerated? Could it have something to do with the general population growth? Either way these are startling statistics. I am glad to hear that the Nebraska prison for women is working on these issues as well as rehabilitation. I wish these women and children the best. May their bond become stronger and never be broken. God bless and keep them.~
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann, Nacogdoches TX : 2:16 PM ET
OMG I feel like it's my lucky day! THANK YOU SHOLA for addressing this key issue our country is facing. But I must say- while you are "addressing" this, can you also address the number of blacks behind bars, which is even more STAGGERING!! Thanks so much for all the work you do, keep up the GREAT reporting!
Posted By Anonymous Gretchen, St Petersburg FL : 2:24 PM ET
The only people I feel sorry for are the children. They are the innocent face suffering for their "parents" criminal behavior. Adults make decisions to commit crimes. Children suffer for them.
Posted By Anonymous Tad, Louisville, Kentucky : 2:37 PM ET
I don't see the point of this blog. Are criminals not supposed to be in jail? Should we let women avoid punishment because they have reproduced?

Here's a novel idea for America's poor, oppressed 2.2 million inmates: Stop committing crimes.
Posted By Anonymous Jack, Seattle, Washington : 2:45 PM ET
I think the reports of straight numbers sways the reporting. The U.S.A. is fourth population wise, (including the E.U. total population) of course we are going to have higher overall numbers of imprisonment. Check out percentage of population behind bars for a more accurate figure. It could still be that we are number one in that area but would increase the quality of reporting.
Posted By Anonymous Amanda, Tallahassee, Florida : 2:53 PM ET
So glad to hear all of these mothers in prison are getting rehabilitation and such a nice environment.

What about all of the FATHERS in prison who get no rehabilitation and have to fight to stay alive each day? Why does everybody cry for children who grow up without a mother but don't give a damn about children who grow up without a father?

This is simply more proof of bias against men and fathers. There is a problem with parents going to prison, but it's not simply a mother/child issue.

Let's see if somebody besides me can show some backbone and cover a story fairly from the perspective of both sexes.
Posted By Anonymous Michael, Nashville TN : 3:00 PM ET
To Betty Ann, Tx:
I'll tell you how mothers end up in jail. The mother of my nieces was abandoned by her mom when she was a toddler. Her father didnt want to take care of her either, so she ended up with a bitter aunt and a grandmother. She never had one rational person in her life to teach her anything good. Therefore when she became a mother, she had nothing to pass on to her children and she abandoned them too. She became addicted to prescription drugs as a way to alleviate her pain and eventually ended up in jail because of it. Because of this situation, I became involved with Big Brother/Big Sister. Every child needs someone who thinks they are special and worth taking care of. I see no blame to be placed on anyone, only compassion that needs to be extended.
Posted By Anonymous S L, Tampa, FL : 3:18 PM ET
Many women who are incarcerated are from low on the socioeconomic scale. Many women who are single parents are from there as well. I wonder if we would have half as many pregnant women going to jail if we invested more effort into urban renewal and healthcare for the poor. With better access to education and birth control, I'm sure we could cut down on the number of women going to prison, let alone the number of pregnant ones.
Posted By Anonymous Ashleigh Lansing, Michigan : 3:28 PM ET
The majority of crime has to do with drug addiction and whatever happened in these peoples lives to get them there. There is nothing anyone can do to change an addict. It has to be their decision to change. All the prison system can do is offer help in the form of counselling and rehab. And, yes they should offer it. We all pay for crime,we cannot ignore these people's needs and think it wont affect us.
Posted By Anonymous SL, Tampa,FL : 3:43 PM ET
I have watched countless shows about prison life. It is amazing how inmates adjust and live relatively normal lives. They form families, they have jobs, they are sometimes provided an opportunity for education. We have to find a way to keep the next generation out of prison.
Posted By Anonymous Jess, Paris, KY : 3:46 PM ET
It amazes me what's offered to female inmates versus male inmates, and still, somehow, we are shocked when the retention rate for male convicts is higher than for females.

Maybe our government will one day realize that this 'system of justice & punishment' they continue to make money off of (yepper, the gov't is PAID for every citizen incarcerated) is completely ass-backwards, and all those pay checks being deposited should be funneled back INTO the system to establish rehabilitation programs for male prisoners.
Posted By Anonymous naturalnubian, NYC by way of Tampa, FL : 3:59 PM ET
Maybe more women are in jail because more women are committing crimes. Damn, I'm a genius!!!

But of course, it just HAS to be somebody else's fault. It couldn't possibly be the criminal's fault.
Posted By Anonymous Perry, Dallas, Texas : 4:20 PM ET
A focus on rehabilitation is a great thing - let's get these people some life handling skills, off the addictive drugs, and maybe a little in the line of job skills and education. They'll repay us by becoming taxpayers.

Generally I say, you did the crime, do the time - but I do know there are some generally gender based unfair practices. A common scenario is when some guy is drug dealling out of the home, she's not dealling, just living there, but knows about it. The police come, he gets the heavier charge, but turns over evidence, and gets off. She has nothing to turn over (since she had nothing to do with it), so she gets hit with full charges. The drug dealler gets off, the person who just knew about him goes to jail for a few years.

I'd like to see some way to deal with this - obviously she's in the wrong, but to be punished worse than the guy who actually did the crime is also wrong.
Posted By Anonymous Lisa, Bothell, WA : 4:36 PM ET
Hey, here's a really novel idea... stop breaking the law! How our penal system became a "correctional" system is beyond me. No one is correcting anything... rather, criminals are being punished (i.e. incarcerated) for their misdeeds. Does it suck being locked up? Of course it does... and the fear of that is what keeps the other 297.8 million of us from breaking the law. Duh.
Posted By Anonymous Eric, San Antonio, TX : 5:02 PM ET
Did you know we incarcerate a higher % of our population than any other nation period? We passed Russia (a totalitarian state a couple of years ago).
Why does a democratic (and supposedly richst) nation imprison so many?
This is mainly due to victimless crimes like prostitution and drug-use. Everybody is well aware of the feminist battle-cry:"My Body, My Choice!"
And an abortionist has the full support of government. In most states a girl as young as 13 can get an abortion w/out parental approval (or notification). And it appears soon, abortions my be paid for in full or partially by the government. Where are these feminists when "My Body, My Choice!" gets violated again & again when casual pot-smokers and john's and prostitutes are demonized and imprisoned?
Also, many state & federal laws encourage recidivism. If you are a con, you have the following restrictions: inelligible for student loan, can't work in the medical field, can't work with children, can't work with government etc. (the list LITERALLY goes on & on.)
Many other 1st world nations have legalized prostitution & decriminalized drug laws. AND they are safer than our country (while still jailing a 1/10th of the % of people we do).
I'll tell you one other thing: the 3 strikes law is about creating political prisoners. How so? Let's say you're an insane tree-hugger. You commit felonious tresspass 3 times (to chain yourself to a tree) and guess what? 25 years mandatory sentencing. The 3 strikes law is about robbing citizens of the right to peacefully protest. Think about all these laws supposedly to "protect" us that incriminate people who haven't really hurt anyone (or who have already paid there debt to society).
Chinese proverb: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".
Posted By Anonymous Jabes, Flint Michigan : 5:03 PM ET
Why are we suprised at the number of inmates in this country? Regardless of sex or race....look at the moral decline in this country!! People do anything without a second thought...never giving one thought to their moms, dads, or children. I feel sorry for noone but their relatives...they committed the crime now they must do the time!!
Posted By Anonymous Cynthia, Covington, Ga. : 5:35 PM ET
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