Justice system treats women unfairly, pastor says
4/2/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
By Frances S. Smith*CLAREMONT, Calif. (UMNS) - Ten thousand women currently are incarcerated in three California prisons.
a forum titled "I Was in Prison and You...", about 90 women and a few
men gathered to discuss issues facing imprisoned women, as well as the
need for improving the criminal justice system. The March 29 forum at
Claremont United Methodist Church raised concerns that could apply to
the prison system of any state.
The Rev. Rosemary A. Davis,
program minister of the church, outlined the purpose of the forum. "The
criminal justice system is not working, especially for women," she said.
"Our church has been doing acts of mercy such as writing to women on
death row, tutoring and taking children to visit their mothers.
"But Micah 6:8 tells us to do justice. We need to work to impact a system that is unfair especially to women."
speaker at the conference was Gloria Killian, 56, who was released from
the California Institution for Women in Frontera after serving 16 years
on a charge of murder. Killian had always maintained her innocence, and
last year, evidence of perjured testimony at her 1986 trial emerged.
Finally, after her lawyer exhausted state court appeals, a federal court
overturned her conviction, and she was freed.
Killian, who had
studied law before her incarceration, told the forum that she had worked
as a law clerk for 14 years while in prison. Now she advocates for
women she knew while in prison, especially those who had been battered.
speaker related the heart-rending story of Maria Suarez, kidnapped off
Los Angeles streets at 16 and sold to a 68-year-old man who beat, raped
and tortured her. Suarez was implicated in the death of her abuser,
Killian said. Now, after 22 years in prison, she has been found suitable
for parole. Killian urged forum participants "to let Gov. (Gray) Davis
know you support parole for Marie."
After the keynote
presentation, five interest groups examined politics, funding,
legislation; what happens to children; aging and health; education and
rehabilitation; and re-entry into life. A recorder from each group
summarized the discussion for the whole group.
The health and
aging group reported that until 1970, the prison system's goal was
rehabilitation. Many women received indeterminate sentences and were
evaluated periodically to see whether they were ready to return to
society. Some people opposed this, and periods of detention became
definite. Section 11 of the Penal Code now states the purpose of
incarceration is to penalize not educate.
The average cost to
maintain a woman in a California prison is $26,000 a year; for an older
woman, $69,000; for a woman on dialysis, $300,000. And the number of
older women is increasing. "The day the criminal justice system runs out
of money, women will be 'rehabilitatable,'" Killian said.
with a parent in prison feel a sense of guilt and anger, according to
the interest group on children. Through a mentoring program, young
people ages 18 to 25 mentor 10- to 17-year-olds. Claremont United
Methodist Women will again participate in a program to take children to
visit their mothers in prison around Mother's Day.
leaving prison receives $200. Often she has no place to live, no clothes
or job, and must provide for her children. The nonprofit organization
Crossroads in Claremont helps women on parole re-enter society.
Terry Dodge, leader of the interest group on re-entering life, said the
key element of Crossroads was allowing women to get a vision of what
life may become and to see the changes needed to nurture that vision.
legislation interest group stressed the need to expand the drug
treatment program. Since 1991 first-time offenders guilty of a
nonviolent crime can get drug treatment. According to the California
Department of Correction, this has reduced the female prison population
by 10 percent.
"Awareness is beginning to spread that even people
with long-term drug addiction need treatment," Killian said. Drug
addition is an illness, she added. "Women in prison want to change, to
give up drugs, but they need help to do it."
A parole agent in
the group said prisons don't have enough treatment beds. "We're not as
committed to drug treatment as we are to building new prisons," he said.
"People who want to bring about change must tell their communities to
support more treatment centers."
This interest group agreed that
California's "three strikes" law needs to be changed. Under this law,
those convicted three times - even for nonviolent crimes - must be
incarcerated for life.
Forum participant Carolyn Francis
summarized the day. "We have gained new insights and information
regarding the human costs and tragic realities of the U.S. criminal
justice system ... especially the system in place in the state of
California," she said. "I invite each of you to consider specific ways
that you might address this critical issue of incarcerated women."
Reading off the names of women on California's death row, she invited
those who knew the women to stand.
Then all stood to symbolize commitment to continued involvement in the issues of women in prison.
# # #
*Smith, a retired United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Claremont,
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