Women inmates deserve better
From Albany Times Union :
COMMENTARY • By Tamar Kraft-Stolar
To be sure, the Correctional Association supports closing prisons.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, should not move forward with his proposal to close the Bayview and Beacon correctional facilities without a plan to replicate the critical opportunities women and families will lose if these prisons shut their doors.
If Bayview closes, women will lose the opportunity to serve time in New York City, making it impossible for many women to be incarcerated near their homes and families. Almost half the state’s incarcerated women come from New York City and its suburbs. Before Superstorm Sandy forced evacuation of the facility, more than two-thirds of Bayview’s population counted the area as their home.
Where a person is incarcerated can make or break a family’s ability to stay connected — something the 4,000 children of incarcerated mothers in this state know well. Visiting far-away prisons like Albion, the state’s largest women’s prison, located eight hours from Manhattan, has become even more difficult since state corrections eliminated its free community bus program in 2011.
Being close to home minimizes the trauma and stress of incarceration for both children and parents, and decreases the risk of an incarcerated parent losing touch with, and sometimes parental rights to, his or her children. Keeping family connections strong also makes prisons safer (by providing incentive for good behavior) and communities safer (by providing support for people to stay out of prison after they go home).
With the closure of Bayview, women would also lose the chance to participate in downstate-based work release, an effective reentry program that functions best when participants are employed in their home communities. Reducing work release — cut already by a whopping 95 percent statewide over the past two decades — is both penny-foolish and pound-foolish. The program costs less than traditional imprisonment and saves millions by reducing recidivism and allowing participants to contribute to the local economy and pay taxes.
If Beacon closes, women will lose the chance to serve time in a minimum-security setting. Minimums offer a safer, more humane and less tense environment, which facilitates a successful return to the community. Even if a unit at a medium- or maximum-security prison is designated on paper as a minimum, it can’t fully reproduce the atmosphere and structure of a true minimum-security setting.
Don’t get me wrong; closing women’s prisons is a step in the right direction.
Incarceration tears apart families, particularly poor families of color, and makes the issues that lead women to prison — such as addiction, trauma, mental illness and economic hardship — worse instead of better. Prisons carry enormous price tags, yet they fail to make our communities safer. Moreover, New York’s female prison population has actually dropped 38 percent in the past 15 years, leaving many empty beds.
Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to close Bayview and Beacon without first establishing a plan to ensure that women don’t lose some of the best opportunities they have to stay connected with their children and make a smooth transition home.
If Bayview and Beacon close, policymakers should use the projected $80.8 million in savings to remake these opportunities and expand community-based alternative-to-incarceration programs. These programs cost significantly less than prison, yet are more effective in reducing crime and helping people rebuild their lives.
The bottom line?
We need to be smart in how we close prisons. These closures should be part of a bigger plan to give women and families involved in the criminal justice system the best possible chance to succeed and stay healthy and whole. To date, that bigger plan is not part of the picture.
Tamar Kraft-Stolar is the director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association of New York.
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