Mothers, daughters, sisters -- behind bars

Two articles look at the challenges facing women in prison and on parole.

Published December 15, 2005 2:35PM (EST)

This fall, statistics released by the Department of Justice confirmed that women are now the fastest-growing prison population in the nation -- accounting for 7 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons and nearly one in four arrests. Those figures, based on data from 2004, mark a 4 percent increase in comparison with 2003 -- more than twice the 1.8 percent increase in the rate of incarceration for men. Close to a third of female inmates are in prison for nonviolent drug crimes, as compared with one in five men.

Two articles published this week help put a human face on the female prison boom. In Stateline, a publication of the Pew Research Center, reporter Mark K. Matthews tells the story of Shylena Littlejohn, 24, an Oklahoma woman who was sentenced to five years in prison and two years' probation for selling methamphetamine from her apartment. Littlejohn has no children -- which, as Salon recently reported, puts her at an advantage over many other female inmates. But even though she now lives in a halfway house and works at Sonic, a fast-food hamburger joint, the struggle to start life over often seems insurmountable. Laurie Ramey, a worker at the facility that houses Littlejohn, is matter of fact about the realities facing former prisoners. "It's hard for them to find a decent job. The only options are fast food or hotel jobs. And you can't take care of a family on minimum wage," she tells Matthews. "Once you get a Department of Corrections number, the economy looks down on you."

In the Rocky Mountain News, Felix Doligosa Jr. reports that Colorado's female prison population has increased 166 percent in the past 10 years, and introduces readers to Tana Ryan, a 39-year-old mother of two who in August received a 20-year sentence for selling methamphetamine to an undercover cop. Ryan will not be eligible for parole for 10 years, and her main concern is maintaining her relationship with her children. According to Doligosa, "when she talks about her two kids and her life in prison, [Ryan's] eyes turn red and tears fall ... She hasn't seen her 14-year-old daughter, Kayla, in several years and she hasn't seen her 18-month-old son, Gage, since he was a month old." Now "she spends most of her time in prison making a sled in woodworking shop with hopes her daughter will accept it as a present." "She's not talking to me," Ryan tells Doligosa. "I write to my daughter. She doesn't write me back. She can't afford to make phone calls. I don't call."

Believe it or not, Ryan is actually lucky to be serving time in a state that is actively exploring ways to ease the pain prison inflicts on families. Walt Ahrens, a spokesman for the state's Department of Corrections, says that the Colorado DOC is trying to adapt to meet women's needs. In Denver, one progressive new program has converted an area of a prison into small suites for female parents. According to Ahrens, the project "may culminate in children spending the night with their mother at the facility."

For the sake of Tana, Kayla, Gage and the millions of others like them, let's hope the rest of the country follows Colorado's lead.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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