A Visit to Gatesville

A gray November day spent in the gray world of the inmates and staff of the Texas State prison for women

Last month, I traveled with Houston-area state Senator John Whitmire on a site visit

to the Gatesville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The central Texas unit is the largest of the three penitentiaries clustered together in Coryell County, where all the state's female inmates are imprisoned. Gatesville is equipped to keep 2,014 criminal offenders and includes all custody levels: minimum, medium, maximum, administrative segregation, punitive segregation and protective custody. The compound consists of seven separate satellite units, run by a staff of over 800 employees. Each satellite serves a distinct community of inmates. For example, the Valley Unit has 72 beds for mentally retarded inmates, and pregnant prisoners (of which there were more than 90 last year) await giving birth there.

Last January, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock appointed Whitmire chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. Whitmire was given the crucial task of overhauling the state's criminal-justice system. During the last session of the Legislature, he won praise from his constituents, colleagues and media (making Texas Monthly's Top Ten Lawmakers List) for his efforts in passing a package of penal measures promising dramatic sentencing and correctional reform in Texas. The measures created a system of state jails to relieve jail overcrowding and to free more prison space for murderers, rapists and other violent offenders. Another bill doubled the time most violent criminals spend behind bars and called for constructing 22,000 new jail beds. The bills also included more money for treatment programs.

Having succeeded in passing laws that he believes are tougher on criminals, Whitmire has now turned his attention to the facilities and the inmates themselves. He has been traveling around the state, talking with criminal-justice careerists -- wardens, officers and offenders. Since the state still faces limited prison space and a finite pot of tax dollars, there remain plenty of reasons to study the massive, multimillion-dollar prison system that serves to punish close to 60,000 wrongdoers.

Of the 60,000, only 3,100 are women. But nationwide and in Texas, the numbers for female criminals are rising rapidly, and in the last decade female inmates have become a topic of increasing interest and concern. In the last ten years, the number of incarcerated women nationwide has doubled, the percentage increase greater than that of male offenders. In December 1986, there were 2,771 incarcerated women in the federal prison system. By 1992, there were more than 5,000 women, a 75 percent increase in the female population in slightly more than five years.

Texas's numbers are no different from the national norm. In 1973, there were 470 women in Texas state prisons. Today there are more than 3,000, and 3,000 more are backed up in county jails waiting for beds to open in Gatesville. One thousand eight-hundred of the women are from Harris County. Still, statistical information has been scant about the social impact of women in prison.

Women are convicted of all types of crimes: murder, assault, robbery and other violent crimes. But a 1991 legislative report indicates that most women are sent up for non-violent offenses -- 44 percent for property offenses (theft, forgery and fraud), 45 percent for drug offenses, and one percent for DWIs. Eighty percent of the women convicted have abused alcohol or illegal substances.

No doubt, says Whitmire, guilty women should have to account for their crimes as much as their male counterparts do. But, in a 1992 national study, the National Bureau of Prisons recognizes that men and women may serve their sentences in very different ways. The bureau argues that what has always been an acceptable accommodation for the needs of incarcerated men has fallen short of addressing the complex situations of women prisoners. The bureau suggests that apparent solutions for men doing time -- seemingly workable programming, housing and custodial practices -- fail to address the larger problem presented by locking up many children's mothers. Rehabilitation is no longer the overall goal of the male correctional system; the numbers and cost prevent any such lofty goals. But the same policy, they recommend, should not be applied to females across the board. Although the availability of short sentences, community service and restitution is considered innovative, the fact remains that female offenders require additional special considerations.

Any discussion of women in the criminal-justice system, Whitmire says, needs to begin with the painful reminder of the state of life for so many impoverished single mothers and young children. For many of these women, poverty has led to alcohol and drug abuse, causing them to commit petty crimes like theft, prostitution, selling small quantities of drugs and forging checks to support their habits and their kids. Substance-abusing families are often in crisis; lack of money and poor daily living skills often affect not only the current generation of children but also future generations. Prison records indicate that it is not unusual to find three generations of families in prison - grandmothers, mothers, daughters and sons. Some female family members house together in cell blocks.

During our site visit, we talked to Gatesville prisoners, guards and administrators about the special concerns regarding women and imprisonment, and we observed the programs currently in place to address these larger social concerns.

"I was young and crazy"
"You know, a big part of life is just luck," offers Whitmire. "A big part of luck is where you're born. That's the first lucky thing. Some who are born have a strong family that stays together. Some don't."

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