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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.

In 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."

Keynote 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.

The 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.

Children 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.

A woman 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.

Sister 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.

The 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,
Calif.

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