Editorial: Moving these inmates creates undue hardship
After more than three decades of dithering, New Hampshire is finally on track to do right by the women incarcerated at the state prison. The new capital budget includes money for a $38 million women’s facility – most likely in Concord – that will finally give inmates the counseling and educational opportunities they have long been denied, not to mention helping the state avoid a costly federal lawsuit.
In this context it is doubly disheartening to hear about the federal government’s plan for its own female inmates from New England and up and down the East Coast.
The federal prison in Danbury, Conn., which has housed women for the past 20 years, is being turned into a facility for men. So, beginning this month, its 1,100 women will be transferred to a new prison in Aliceville, Ala.
Danbury, which has been made strangely well-known through the Netflix series called Orange is the New Black, is the only federal prison for women on the East Coast. When women from New Hampshire are convicted in federal court, that’s generally where they end up. Inside, one federal prison might be similar to the next. But when it comes to rehabilitating inmates, particularly female inmates, geography matters.
Most of these inmates are not lifers. They have typically committed nonviolent crimes related to drug abuse. Their time in prison is partly spent in preparation for reentry into society. For reasons both humane and financial, we all have an interest in making that reentry as successful as possible.
If a woman from Concord is sent to Danbury, her family has about 200 miles to travel to visit her. The prison is close to airports, train stations and bus lines. If that same woman is shipped off to Aliceville, it becomes a 1,300-mile journey to a community with no major airport, passenger train station or public transportation. (It also has no hospital and few lawyers or religious leaders, the sorts of professionals inmates typically need.)
With that far to go, ties to spouses or parents will inevitably fray. And, most important, connections to young children will be imperiled. While their mothers were found guilty, they, too, will be harshly punished. More often than male inmates, women are the main caregivers for their kids. The move to Aliceville will likely break up many of these families.
Typically, the federal government tries to place inmates within 500 miles of home. That’s harder in the case of women because there aren’t that many federal women’s prisons, and many are already crowded. Of the federal Bureau of Prisons’ 220,000 inmates, only about 14,500 are women. There are just seven prisons exclusively for women, though another two dozen have some space for women. In the Northeast, Danbury was the only option.
Yes, the government is facing considerable constraints, but this particular move seems extreme. It is also ironic: Getting a facility for women in the Northeast was a hard-fought change in the first place. It took 15 years of lobbying by advocates for female inmates to get Danbury opened in 1994. That brought inmates closer to their families and gave them access to a legal assistance program organized by Yale Law School.
Eleven U.S. senators from Northeastern states, including New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, have urged the federal Bureau of Prisons to reconsider. They’re right. It’s not too late to do the right thing.