Diane Sawyer’s special on February 27th examined the fastest growing group of the largest prison population in the world–Women. The United States has almost 2.3 million inmates and 200,000 of the inmates are women. Sawyer visited four women’s prisons in the United States; the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, the Corrections Center for Women in Washington state, the Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida, and the Prison for Women in Nashville Tennessee.
After watching the documentary, it was evident that the problems that plague the men’s prisons are the same for the women’s prisons. A large number of the women inmates have serious mental health problems and are being warehoused in prisons and jails instead of receiving effective mental health care. Many local communities do not provide mental health care and the majority of state psychiatric hospitals were closed to save funds in the 1980’s. There are too many elderly inmates that should be released after serving long years of incarceration. Studies have shown that elderly inmates released are at very little risk of being arrested again.
Sawyer interviewed various women inmates imprisoned for nonviolent crimes and for violent crimes. Almost 63% of women inmates were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. The show did not neglect the victims of the crimes since the details of the inmate’s crimes ranging from theft to murder were discussed during the interviews. Despite the differences in the crimes committed and the inmate’s different backgrounds, many of the women inmates had much in common. The interviews revealed abusive childhoods, drug addictions, and serious mental health issues.
One inmate was a suburban housewife who became addicted to drugs after suffering injuries in a car accident. She went from expensive pain killers to cheap heroin. She stole $30,000 worth of checks and was sentenced to thirteen years in state prison. The woman’s husband continued to visit her and their children are growing up without a mother. As I watched the interview, I saw a drug addicted mother serving a prison sentence longer than inmates who have committed a violent crime. An alternative sentence consisting of an effective drug program in a treatment facility and a strict probationary period would provided a more humane disposition for her, the family, and society.
The outside world observed briefly the prison life of women inmates. The inmates experienced the bad food, tiny claustrophobic cells, long periods of depression and boredom. The viewer watched the interaction between the women inmates and the correctional officers. There was the constant struggle of hide and seek of contraband between the inmates and correctional officers. The show pointed out that women inmates for the right price could obtain contraband ( i.e. drugs, cell phone, etc.) from some guards. From the interviews, you compared compare the rehabilitative philosophy of the women’s warden in Maryland to the punishment attitude in Tennessee. Sadly, the viewers watched one woman inmate discharged back into the community with $60, no medications, no job, and a place to stay only for one night, Within weeks, she was another recidivism statistic.
In the end, the Sawyer show revealed broken women and a broken prison system.
By: Bradley Schwartz
Founder of prisonpath.com