about PAC
recent projects
facts & statistics
join the listserv
related links
contact us

this page designed in 3/2001
and maintained by students
in boalt.org and PAC

Women in California Prisons

September 2000


General Information

  • Since mandatory-sentencing laws went into effect in the mid 1980's, the California female prison population has skyrocketed. At the end of 1986, women in California's prisons totaled 3,564. As of September 2000, the female population now numbers 11,091 -- an increase of 311% in fourteen years (California Department of Corrections [CDC] Data).
  • The vast majority of women sentenced under California's two-strikes and three-strikes laws are for nonviolent crimes, particularly drug offenses. Approximately 800 women had been sentenced under 2- or 3-strikes laws as of 3/1/1996, only two years after the law was signed. Conviction of a second strike invokes a mandatory sentence double the term for the offense; and conviction of a third felony strike - even if it's not a strikeable felony - invokes a mandatory indeterminate life sentence, with no parole eligibility for 25 years. (National Institute of Justice Research Brief, "Three Strikes and You're Out", 9/1997)
  • The drug war has also taken its toll on California women, at an even greater rate than on California men. In 1970, 23.9% of female felon admissions were drug offenses, which had fallen to 12.8% by 1980. The rate in 1990 was 47% and in 1999 reached a new high: 50.1% of all new female felon admissions were drug offenses - a 210% increase over 40 years, compared to a 187% increase over the same period for men.

The Women

  • Although African-Americans comprise only 7% of California's population, they constitute 33.6% of California's female prison population. (Dept. of Finance, California Statistical Abstract, 12/1999; CDC, California Prisoners and Parolees, 12/1999)

  • While African-American women are 32.4% of the population of VSPW, they represent 45% of the women in VSPW's Security Housing Unit (SHU) (12/31/99 CDC, and 4/3/98 CDC Monthly Ethnicity Report).

  • 7% of juveniles committed to California detention facilities were female. (Juvenile Detention and Commitment Admissions to Public Facilities by STATE 1994, National Center for Juvenile Justice.)

  • As of December 31, 1999, 73.3% of women in California prisons were imprisoned for non-violent offenses, the majority (43.5% of total) of which were drug crimes. (CDC)

  • In 1999, new female felon admissions for drug crimes reached a new high: 50.1%. (CDC, California Prisoners and Parolees 2000, Table 33)

  • According to a Department of Justice Statistics report released in April 1998, 48% of women in United States jails reported being sexually or physically abused prior to their detention; 27% reported being raped. Note: Given the general under-reporting by women in the area of sexual assault, the actual percentages are likely to be much higher.

  • A 1995 study of women in the California prison system found that 71% of incarcerated women had experienced ongoing physical abuse prior to the age of 18 and that 62% experienced ongoing physical abuse after 18 years of age. The report also found that 41% of women incarcerated in California had experienced sexual abuse prior to the age of 18 and 41% experienced sexual abuse after 18 years of age. Such a background further inhibits the ability of female inmates to report or seek recourse in cases of abuse within the prison system. (Barbara Bloom, Barbara Owen, "Profiling the Needs of California's Female Prisoners," 1995.)


Children & Families

  • Roughly 80% of women in California prisons are mothers, and the majority of these women are single caretakers. (Barbara Bloom)
  • Due to stringent regulations on the attire of visitors, many family members have been turned away after traveling hours or even days to visit a woman in prison. In one instance a baby was unable to see its mother because it was wearing a denim jump suit. Children have also been turned away for wearing shorts.
  • In the California prison system, visitation is a privilege not a right. Prisoners on death row and prisons in California serving life sentences without parole cannot receive unsupervised family visits. Family visits are also not permitted with common law relationships.
  • All potential visitors to California prisons must submit a visiting questionnaire that requires the individual to state personal information, including full arrest record and criminal history. Verification time for questionnaires can be lengthy, and if any piece of information proves to be incorrect, access can be denied for up to 6 months.
  • Most women in California's prisons are from urban areas of the state. However, the facilities that house the majority of the female prisons are in rural regions of California. Bus service to these locations can be limited and the trip often takes many hours. Chowchilla is home to two female correctional facilities, VSPW and CCWF. Together the populations of these two prisons comprise 62% of the total female prison population in the state. For a Los Angeles family to travel via bus to this location, it would take seven hours and cost $38 per person. If departing from San Francisco, the travel time would be five hours at a cost of $55 per person. The same family traveling by bus from LA to the California Institute for Women (CIW) in Frontera would still have to set aside five hours of travel time.
  • The exorbitant cost of the current phone system for California state prisons places another enormous financial burden on inmate families. MCI charges California prisoners $3.00 just to connect collect calls from the prison in addition to high collect call fees. Calls paid by prisoners accrue high surcharges and charge the maximum per-minute rates. Prisoners are not permitted to use discount numbers like 1-800-COLLECT. Though phone companies allege that higher rates are necessary because of the expensive security systems required for prisons, the states also share responsibility for these high rates. Telephone companies are offering higher and higher commissions for states in order to get contracts. In some states, these commissions have gone as high as 60% of the profits earned by the state prison telephone system. The money the state of California receives from charges to prisoners and their families goes directly into the state's general fund and not the Inmate Welfare Fund.
  • For women released from the California prison system the challenges for them and their children continue. Under new welfare reform guidelines, an individual previously incarcerated is not eligible for public benefits, including housing assistance.


Health & Safety Issues

  • In federal prisons, pregnant women must give birth while wearing shackles. California's high-security women's prison, VSPW, also requires its inmates to give birth in shackles. The vast majority of pregnant women in the California state prison system are housed at VSPW. This is contrary to international human rights standards.
  • Despite the fact that approximately 45% of California's female prisoners are held on drug charges, there is no comprehensive support program for detoxification when a female addict enters the prison system. While California does operate some drug treatment programs / facilities for inmates, space is limited and detoxification drugs such as methadone are not permitted.

The Prisons

  • Prisons for women in California are on average 171% over their designed capacity, with two prisons almost 200% over capacity. The Federal women's prison in Dublin is more than 128% over capacity (as of 9/17/2000, CDC Population Report; and 5/7/1998 BOP Population Report)
  • Valley State Penitentiary for Women (VSPW) and the adjacent Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) together house almost 7,000 incarcerated women and is probably the largest women's prison complex in the world. (CDC, Amnesty International Report AMR 51/53/99, April 1999.)
  • Persistent privacy violations are a fact of life for women in California prisons. Guards observe female inmates at all times - taking showers, dressing and going to the bathroom. Women are searched continuously, from pat downs after meals to strip and body searches after all visits. In VSPW strip searches are performed with even greater frequency. At times these searches have been an opportunity for some guards to sexually grope female inmates. Furthermore, female inmates have reported experiencing degrading and sexually explicit language and frequent harassment from guards. If an inmate protests or appeals to the prison administration, it can potentially mean more mistreatment, limited privileges, or an increased sentence. It is in this powerless environment that some female inmates have endured sexual assault from guards.
  • Among the United States, California has among the highest percentage of male officers working in female prisons - 66%. The national average is 41%. International human rights standards provide that female prisoners should be attended and supervised only by female officers, and in the United States courts have held that male officers' duties may be circumscribed to protect women's rights. (Amnesty International Report AMR 51/53/99, April 1999).
  • Numerous allegations of officer misconduct and mistreatment of women entrusted to their care precipitated an Amnesty International visit to the VSPW in November 1998. Amnesty found that some California prison procedures were inherently abusive, and other procedures created regular opportunities for illegal abuse; that restraints were used inappropriately with pregnant and laboring women; and that there were serious problems with the Security Housing Units (SHU). (Amnesty International Report AMR 51/53/99, April 1999).
  • Access to prisons by social service agencies and organizations is entirely dependent upon the prerogative and power of prison wardens. In many cases, attorneys and local organizations spend months waiting for prison officials to respond to their requests for access.
  • Harsh media restrictions instituted by the CDC and presently in effect for all California state prisons severely limit the ability of the press to document abuses within the system. The media rules prohibit reporters from scheduling news interviews with specific prisoners in California prisons. Previous news interviews conducted before the institution of these rules led to the publicizing of California prison officials' violations of prisoners' human rights. Under the new rules, reporters may only appear at the prison and interview at random individuals the prison determines are available. The new constraints make it far more difficult for the media to verify systematic abuse claims by interviewing inmates who may claim similar abuses.
  • Women in California state prisons make only pennies an hour. Females incarcerated in federal prisons make a minimum of $5.75 per month. Though inmates from the United States can sometimes make more money through Federal work programs, non-nationals are not permitted to make more than the base monthly amount. In California state prisons, women earn as little as $.05 per hour.
  • In California state prisons, women are forced to pay inflated prices for basic hygiene products. Indigent female inmates (those with less than five dollars in their prison account) are provided a total of five sanitary pads per month. The rest of California's female prison population must purchase sanitary pads from the prison commissary that sells such items at two to three times the market rate. Federal prisons are required to supply a short list of basic supplies to female inmates such as shampoo, soap, and sanitary pads; however, the number and the frequency of distribution is up to each warden's discretion. Such practices combined with the repressive pay scale create an environment where women will barter sex or other acts in order to acquire their most basic needs.
  • Federal prisoners, regardless of their sentence length, are allowed only a limited number of personal items. For example, an inmate may only possess twenty photographs and five books. No exceptions are made for inmates attempting to conduct self-study courses.


For More Information Contact:

Women's Institute for Leadership Development (WILD) for Human Rights
340 Pine Street, Suite 302
San Francisco, CA 94104
ph: 415-837-0795
fax: 415-837-1144
email: wild@igc.apc.org

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
100 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
ph: 415-255-7036
fax: 415-552-3150
email: lspc@igc.apc.org

Bibliography of Sources:

coming soon