Are female inmates criminals or victims?

May 8, 2008 7:08:52 PM PDT
A new study of female inmates in the South Bay reveals a disturbing profile. The vast majority of inmates are mothers who keep getting arrested, and they're almost all victims of domestic violence.

"I'm a product of the good that can happen when people care and support us. I'm sorry you guys," said former jail inmate Charmaine Wilson-Thomas.

The testimonials by former inmates were emotional.

Charmaine Wilson-Thomas will be graduating with honors from college after being in and out of jail for the past two decades.

She and other inmates helped the county with its first detailed analysis of female offenders in its jail system. The report paints a sad profile.

"Seventy-six percent reported early childhood abuse and 46 percent reported early childhood sexual abuse," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Blanca Alvarado.

A video provided by the County Office of Women's Policy highlights jailhouse programs for women inmates and their children.

It is important, because 78 percent are mothers. More than a third have children under the age of five, and that trend keeps rising.

"There's an increase of females coming into custody who are pregnant," said Edward Flores from the Santa Clara County Corrections Department.

The report's other findings are just as disturbing. Eighty-five percent are victims of domestic violence. More than 80 percent are repeat offenders with over half reporting they've been jailed five or more times as an adult.

"Mixed into the cycle of incarceration is a vicious cycle of victimization that must be broken," said Alvarado.

The report's authors say that's exactly what the analysis is meant to do; break that cycle through programs that deal specifically with the problems faced by incarcerated women.

Researchers did find that existing programs are well received.

"Those who leave our care are better equipped to be successful and not return to our custody," said Flores.

Former inmate Victoria Kirschner was arrested more times than she can remember on drug related crimes.

Today, she's a success story.

"They planted the seed of hope for me. Without those tools I got in these programs, I don't know where I'd be today," said Kirschner.

As one former inmate said today, her arrest could have been the end of her life. But because of the programs at the county jail, it was the beginning.

The county hopes this report will provide even more programs and more success stories.


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