Will Schwarzenegger spring women from prison?

A new plan, buried in his state budget, would move half of California's female prisoners out of jails.

Published February 14, 2006 4:29PM (EST)

When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently released his proposed state budget, a few reporters noted that buried in his plan was a potentially revolutionary request to move 40 percent "of the state's non-violent female inmates into neighborhood correctional centers." The Associated Press reports that under the prison reform plan, "about 4,500 female inmates [would be able to] live closer to their families and get job training and drug and alcohol counseling. Some prisoners would be allowed to have their children live with them."

According to the same article, California now has over 11,400 female inmates in the penal system -- about twice what the number was 15 years ago. More than 60 percent of the women were arrested on nonviolent charges. Democratic Assemblywoman Sally Lieber tells the AP, "The overwhelming majority of women in prison are in for low-level crimes that do not require the sort of expensive, high-security setting we're providing them."

Broadsheet couldn't agree more -- and too often it is not just the convicts themselves but their families who bear the permanent scars. Indeed, a few months back we expressed our support for a model program run by the Denver Department of Corrections that would allow prisoners more private time with their children, and might one day even allow incarcerated parents and their kids to spend the night together in small family suites on-site at local prisons.

So shouldn't Schwarzenegger's plan be a beacon of hope? Well, almost. Sorta. But not exactly. For as much as his movement toward rehablitation and neighborhood treatment facilities deserves celebration, his motives are considerably more grim. The fine print is, of course, that California faces massive prison overcrowding -- a problem that would be eased by freeing up all those women's beds. According to the governor, the spaces would be filled by male inmates, "providing temporary relief while Schwarzenegger pushes his proposal to build new prisons with bond money."

Got that: More new prisons. Should we assume then that humane prison reform is a fine idea -- but only as a short-term solution?

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 thefastertimes.com/streetfood and Signs and Wonders.

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