VSPW To Undergo Gender Change?
Note to reader: This particular post turned out to be much more than I imagined when I started, so be prepared for a bit longer read than usual. Go get your coffee first. I am not affiliated with either side of this issue, nor do I claim to be any kind of expert. Just a citizen of a small Central Valley town.
It has taken me all these months here in Chowchilla to get sort of “settled.” For those who read this blog regularly, you’ve heard many of the challenges and differences my wife and I have faced in moving here. It is only now starting to feel like we live here rather than just visiting. It’s hard finding the right descriptor. I wanted to say comfortable, but most of the time it’s really not comfortable here. There are some very nice people to interact with in addition to our friends, but even though Angela grew up here, we are essentially outsiders and probably always will be. Small towns are not always as welcoming as seen on cable TV movies. In my opinion, it directly correlates to how insulated this community is and that they feel they have to protect their way of life. Does just being a lesbian in your town mean I am trying to change your way of life? Maybe it does to most of them…the circle feels pretty closed.
I don’t give up or give in easily, so we prevail by being an ongoing presence here whether we are liked or not, welcomed or not. My friends will tell you that neither Angela nor I are good at just sitting around or kicking back and letting things roll. I have been an activist of one type or another since 1988 in San Francisco. I personally believe that part of the reason we are put on earth is to make ourselves into the best we can be and to make differences large or small whenever and however we can. So even though I’m far away from my circle of long-time friends and the years of political and activist contacts I made where I used to live, you can’t take the activist out of the girl.
I’ve been paying attention to the local news as much as possible and there are a couple of pretty big issues at stake right now. One, which I’m following but want to do more research on, is the high speed rail project. I am for the concept but can see why many of those affected in this town are fighting it. That’s a whole other blog post. The other is the conversion of Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW), one of Chowchilla’s two women’s prisons to a men’s prison. The primary concerns I’ve talked to townsfolk about fall into:
- Social service overload: It is said that when women are in prison, families do not “follow” the prisoner at the same rate as when men are in prison. Families tend to “follow” and move to where the husband/father/babydaddy is. Relocation to a town that already has 17-20+% unemployment and very few job availabilities is hard. I can tell you about that personally. It is assumed in these conversations that any or all families who move here will be without other resources and will likely add to the already heavy load the few local caseworkers have and bankrupt the county as there is already a heavy demand due to unemployment, general assistance, food stamps, WIC. It could overload the offices that serve those needs. Also, those families with children will overload the school system where kindergarten classes already have more than 30 kids per classroom and very few teachers have any assistance in the classroom. I hear an implied racism or classism in many comments on this subject but that is not even being acknowledged in the arguments.
- Public safety: Some of the area communities are already considered low income/high crime. There is high drug-related crime in Madera already and statistically men’s prisons increase crime in the area as drug trafficking inside prison is big business and law enforcement battles it inside and out. It is assumed that bringing in male prisoners means they will be more dangerous than women prisoners. Chowchilla sees itself as an all-American model of small-town goodness and no one wants to increase crime around here. I have to say that while crime does occur it is minimal compared to larger places.
These are reasonable concerns and echo my own upon hearing of the situation. I’m one of those citizens that believe we have to pay attention to what is going on and not just assume someone else has our best interest at heart. I may be a newbie here, but I’m going to be affected by the fallout, the taxes, the crime, the unemployment along with those who’ve lived here their whole life. Maybe more, being an outsider and all. So I saw this meeting notice in the newspaper for an informational meeting in the Madera County Board of Supervisors chambers. It was held a few days ago and Angela and I were there to see what we could learn. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was represented by a panel of 5, umm, experts, and they presented their case and hoped to clarify how moving the girls out and the boys in to one whole prison is not going to affect anyone really. Hmmm. I put on my skeptical hat (imaginary of course; with my blue hair and my butch wife I don’t need any more attention) and hunkered down in my seat.
First of all, I found out that all of this is happening because of “The Realignment” as referred to many times by the CDCR. Earlier in 2011 before I moved to California, Gov. Brown signed legislation meant to close the “revolving door” of low-level prisoners that repeatedly cycle in and out of the state prisons. Because the state prisons are extremely overcrowded the mandate is to reduce the overcrowding, because of course nobody wants a new prison built in their backyard even if the state could afford some new ones. Most of us hear about overcrowding but I did not know until this week that at the time this went into effect, the state prisons were at 202% of capacity. Capacity means 1 person, 1 cell. Even after “The Realignment” finishes, they will still be over-capacity but only 137.5%. It’s such a strange number. I keep trying to imagine the torture of the one guy who is the 37.5%. Does he share 3 cells? Do 3 other prisoners get to share him? Does he move around every other night so no one has to share with him for very long? Anyway, I digress.
I picked up 8 pages of very good informational material and listened to two hours of testimony and discussion, but because I like you, I’m going to consolidate it into the most fascinating highlights.
Here’s what the CDCR had to say about our two main concerns:
- Social Services: No need to worry folks. They have statistics that say that actually menfolk have fewer visitors (women are 43% “unvisited” but men are 59% “unvisited”) and families do not “follow” as often as you think. They stated that the level I-II inmates are moved around frequently depending on how their points go up and down making it impractical for most families to up and move. When asked by Madera County whether frequently means every 5 months or every 3 years, the CDCR could not specify, but they still said families moving here will not be a problem. Statistically only 1-4% of prisoner families are anticipated to move. The CDCR’s Notice of Exemption report notes that VSPW typically houses 3,800 inmates and they don’t expect that to change (except for their gender of course.) 3,800 x 4% = 152 potential families that could move to the area. See? No biggie.
- Public Safety: The CDCR had some very colorful (and probably expensive!) charts on hand to show that based on reported crimes within the prison, the women have a much higher rate of criminal activity. So see, now that the men are coming, everything will be even easier to deal with! If you happened to wonder what is happening to all those existing women prisoners, their numbers have been (or will be) dwindling through attrition and release and now only higher level prisoners are coming to VSPW (the lower level crimes staying at the county jails now). The VSPW ladies will be distributed between the other 2 remaining state women’s prisons; one is the other here in Chowchilla (CCWF), and the second in Corona (CIW). There is no need to worry about the new prisoners being more violent or anything. The men housed here will be level II. CDCR explained the levels this way, in case you are curious:
Level I: low security risks, often candidates for prison camps or farms
Level II: low to medium security. This also includes level II SNY. I researched and this stands for Sensitive Needs Yard prisoners. Sensitive needs prisoners include those who are at danger from the general prison populations such as sex offenders, mentally ill, old/infirm, ex-gang members, or high notoriety ones like Charles Manson or Phil Spector.
Level III: Medium security risk
Level IV: Highest security risk
Local county and city representatives spoke out with these counterarguments:
- Social Services: District Supervisor Dr. Charles Martin brought up the fact that 4% of the prisoners families moving here may not sound like much, but those 152 families, even if each only had 2 children means roughly 300 children would be added to the school system. He stated that in Chowchilla all classrooms are already at and over capacity for optimum learning. In classrooms that are already overloaded, he pointed out it only takes 1 disruptive student to alter the whole learning process. Those 300 children would impact nearly every classroom in the district (if all moved to Chowchilla). Even spread over all of Madera County, it is potentially a significant impact on all school resources from space, supplies, general expense and personnel. Sidenote: Personally, I’ve had to take advantage of some social services myself since I am still seeking employment. During the times I was dealing with a caseworker, I found out that they had to work extremely long days for weeks on end, without a choice really, because the caseloads were enormous. I wish I could remember the number she told me, but in an orientation class I had to take, we were told if we had to call our caseworker, don’t expect a call back for at least a week because of the number of people each is trying to take care of. Seeing an opportunity for work, I of course offered my services, but was told that they were unable to hire new positions. Thinking about how even half of those 152 families needing assistance upon relocating would impact the Social Services offices both here and in Madera makes me cringe for that hardworking staff.
- Public Safety: Madera County DA Michael Kietz attended and brought up what I think are more critical points. Now that all crimes in Madera County that do not meet the State standard of serious or violent felonies including those requiring registration as a sex offender (AB109), and are sentenced to county jail rather than state imprisonment, the burden to the criminal system is bound to increase. In addition, there is the issue of crimes that occur inside prison since the prison is in Madera County. I never thought about this aspect before. Apparently each county can choose not to prosecute those crimes, but Madera has chosen over the years to take those crimes seriously and prosecute. What are they supposed to do? Let them get away with it? In spite of the statistics CDCR presented about women’s crime versus men’s crime, the experience of the DA is that the nature and types of crimes committed by males, in particular drug trafficking, bring in groups of criminals that exist on the “outside” to facilitate the trafficking “inside” and just this alone is going to increase the DA office’s workload. There are of course other non-drug crimes as well. Mr. Kietz estimates that to handle the increased prosecution load plus the increase in local prisoners and related expenses, he will need an additional budget of roughly $670,000 to handle it. Where is that funding to come from?
All things come back to economics. The State has been mandated to cut prisoners and therefore the CDCR’s budget has been cut to correlate to fewer prisoners. The CDCR stated at the meeting they are not “gaining” anything by The Realignment because they are losing funding too. The fact sheet I picked up at the meeting from the CDCR states that money will flow to the counties from vehicle license fees and State sales tax. Funds have been temporarily allocated to counties for 2011-12 but next year supposedly there will be a permanent allocation after an assessment has been made of initial distribution to number of offenders. So supposedly funding will be taken care of, but the concerns I heard relate more to when, how, and will it be enough?
One main problem seems to be communication, or rather lack of it. The County feels the State is ramming this down their throat. Because there has not been much collaboration from the State to work with local administrators, it felt that way from my vantage point too. Management by intimidation is never as effective as management by objective or collaboration. Why is that so hard for people to get? Anyhoo, State Senator Cannella, Madera County Supervisor David Rogers, Chowchilla Council Member Isaac Jackson and all the other people who spoke were very concerned about this. After listening to all of it, I felt the same skepticism and lack of distrust in the CDCR representatives who were there. They were there to explain how this all came to be, and said up front they did not have many answers. Most of the difficult questions will have to be forwarded on to others in the CDCR who can possibly answer them or more likely, pass them on to another State agency that is in charge of the funding and related concerns.
I walked away feeling better because of increased knowledge about how the prison system works and how the prisoners are categorized, but not because those CDCR representatives gave me any confidence in them. They are just doing their jobs, right? Unfortunately, regardless of impact? Their poor approach in working with the locals shows their lack of any other perspective and that makes me not trust them. The prisoners being relocated here will be low-to-medium risk because our existing VSPW facility is just perfect for that level and requires only “negligible” changes. One group out, a few minor details like taking out shower partitions for the ladies privacy, then bring in the next group. But if we have no real impact as a community on this change, why would we think we’d have any impact if the State finds 4 years from now that there is overcrowding in the system of level 3 and 4 prisoners and Chowchilla is just the right size? They say that won’t happen. Maybe it won’t, but what they’ve shown so far does not make me comfortable. I guess that’s just one more thing.
It was highly recommended by the Madera County Supervisor that the CDCR take the time to meet with local officials, in particular the DA and I really hope they do. It might go a long way in helping citizens like me believe they want to work with us. But in reality they don’t have to, so we’ll see what they do next. I believe it’s important to look forward, to change or grow, and not keep things the way they are “just because.” But change just for the sake of change is not necessarily good either. The County is concerned because the State did not have to do an environmental impact report and the County has no doubt there will be impact. If this needs to happen and it will improve the state, then that is overall better for me and for Chowchilla. In doing some reading and researching, some of it makes a lot of sense. But nobody wants to be told what to do, especially on their own property. LGBT people know all about that, with half the country trying to tell us what we can do, think, or feel with our own minds and bodies. If you want to put your hands on mine, then you better do something to make me want you to. Otherwise I’m going to fight back. It’s just that simple. So CDCR, you might want to make your next “date” with Madera County one where they’re going to want to go to second base with you. Or face the wrath of the small town folks.
You can find Pamela's blog here...Queer Femme In The Country