Wearing Two Hats
"If you fix a woman, then you fix the generations that follow her, or you have a much better shot at it," believes warden Susan Cranford, who supervises close to 2,000 inmates and 867 staff members at the Gatesville Unit. "So we have an opportunity to really do some investment on some things that are real. If you're talking about investing money where there is a higher bang for the buck, here we have this group of people, identified all in a box, who we know are lacking skills and treatment. We know they are creating our next generation.
"Prison is not the problem. Where they are, is not the problem. They're getting cared about here, they're healthier, they are away from a lot and are ripe for treatment."
State Senator John Whitmire and I are sitting in the office of the head administrator at Gatesville. Cranford oversees the largest of the three units. Outside her window I can see Rosie from Brenham pulling weeds. Guards ride by, and more inmates are in a line marching slowly down the blacktopped road towards the fields. Cranford is professional, firm but pleasant, and a little bit country. Her office, although furnished in plain and brown standard state-issue office fare, is filled with procedural manuals, stacks of reports, plaques, prison mementos, a tiny American flag, pictures of nephew, nieces, parents, one of Cranford with Governor Ann Richards and another of football hero Earl Campbell on a visit to the prison. Two framed degrees hang on the wall.
Cranford, who holds a master's degree in behaviorism and health education, is a 20-year veteran of the correctional system. She mentions that today is her 20th year anniversary. Starting as a health education and physical education instructor in the Goree Unit, she worked her way up to senior warden at Gatesville in 1985.
he tells us bluntly she doesn't believe that all the women who are incarcerated here belong under her watch.
"Yes, there are some inmates who are convicted of a violent crime who are not violent. I know that sounds odd. I have people doing life sentences for murder at the Trusty Camp [minimum security]." Her two housekeepers, she adds, are both serving long sentences for murdering their husbands. "And the reason I have them there is because they did a one-time thing. They were in a battering situation at home and they killed their husbands.
"A lot of these women don't know they can survive outside of a situation like that. They don't think they can feed their kids or a thousand other things that you and I might find hard to identify with, because we're not entrapped in it. They feel absolutely no sense of power, so they stay in these situations and they don't say anything because they know everybody thinks they ought to be leaving and they can't figure out how.
"So, we have stories of women who were raped by their husbands two days after they had a baby. Women who were repeatedly abused during pregnancy, even a woman whose husband comes home and drags her into the kitchen because when he beats her there it's easier to clean up the blood. They just finally snapped and shot the guy and have never before done a thing wrong. We have about 45 percent, at a very bare minimum, of our women here who have experienced some sort of abuse. It's a very tough issue."
Cranford is less sympathetic to the remaining offenders, and she attributes the rapidly rising female prison population to a popular disgust with criminals, male or female. "The public is sick of getting ripped off! The bottom line is that they're less sensitive about sending poor women to prison. Traditionally, women who end up in prison have been given many more chances not to be here than their male counterparts have.
"It is difficult for women to make decisions to leave their children and families to get help in community treatment centers. My personal opinion is, sometimes we need to make that decision for them. Whether we need to put them in hard beds in prison, if that's all we got, then I think we do." The warden says it is not unusual for women to be on probation three times before they receive a prison sentence. The women's recidivism rate is as high as men's; she estimates it at more than 45 percent.
Drug abuse is a major contributor to women's increased incarceration, Cranford says; she explains that the problem is not only more women using drugs, but it's also what kind of drugs are being abused. They cause more crimes and breed a different type of inmate. "Twenty years ago it was pretty much the same thing, drugs and stealing. But 20 years ago the kind of drugs they were involved with were the kind that were much more sedentary. Heroin, barbituates and downers, the women were a completely different kind of inmate to manage. They had different expectations from drug use. They just kinda wanted to get numb, you know, and nod out. That was the ultimate high."
Now, she says, it's cocaine or crack or whatever they can take to get all jazzed and wired up. "It's producing a completely different nature of problem for us. Cocaine and speed can leave sorts of psychoses we haven't seen before. They're more paranoid, act out more. The kind of person who enjoys being on the nod is not the same kind of person that enjoys being wired.
I'd like to give all of them another chance. But at the same time, when we do determine someone is bad, I think we owe it to the public to have hard beds for women -- steel and concrete and cells, that kind of thing. The public expects us to be pretty tough on them."
eing tough, she insists, does not have to mean withholding treatment and training. Gatesville does offer a variety of programs, including substance-abuse counseling, supportive-group counseling, post-partum depression groups, groups for developing parenting skills and a counseling group for battered women. But there's limited space and long waiting lists at times.
Cranford argues against the blanket programs now in place for both male and female prisoners. "I am of the firm belief that we don't need to treat women offenders the same as men offenders. We need to program differently, classify differently. Let's stick the money into programs that are specific to the needs of women who are in prison. Parenting skills, self-esteem, education and job skills, life skills -- without treating those problems, women will keep getting in trouble." The warden also refers to statistics showing that women respond much better to treatment than men do. "They're not as bashful about saying, 'I'm screwed up.' "
Summing up her experience, Cranford says she has found herself playing two opposing roles. "One is the warden's hat, where you have to do what you do to run the prison. And there is no doubt, this is a prison. There are women here that need to be here, so I must be a tough operator. But we also have to be an advocate for them, which is an odd position for a warden to be in. It's an odd thing to be in a system that expects you to be tough, and very definitely expects you to be on one side of an issue and then to be put in the role of being an advocate for the inmates you have.
"You have to show compassion and be a tough operator at the same time. You can do it, but it takes time to explain it. And you always have to explain it."
-- Leah Karotkin
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- #BlackLivesMatter Faces Backlash After Deputy’s Slaying
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:00pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 2:30pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 6:00pm
- College Football: Five Best Bets On Season Win Totals
- With No Funding, Texas Race Tracks Ordered to Close — at Least for Now