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Delegation hears stories, needs of women inmates.

With women comprising only 7 percent of California's prison population, their needs are often ignored in the shadow of a much larger population of male inmates, according to prison reform advocates.

They point out that 80 percent of the nearly 11,000 women in California's state prisons are mothers, the majority unmarried. The women struggle to find caretakers for their children and to maintain contact with them, as well as to keep a sense of self-worth and dignity.

An interfaith delegation recently spent a day touring and meeting with inmates at the California Institution for Women in Corona, 40 miles east of Los Angeles. The group included more than a dozen women of various faiths and Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, who chairs the California bishops' Committee on Restorative Justice.

The delegation was organized by Women and Criminal Justice, a new nonprofit organization directed by Sr. Suzanne Jabro, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The group hopes to work with prisoners and prison administrators to address the needs of incarcerated women and their families.

Many of the 2,000 inmates at the Institution for Women are serving sentences for drug use or related crimes. Others are jailed for crimes such as murder, including the murder of partners or spouses who abused them.

Herbert Sanders, associate warden for business services, told the visitors that administrators want to help women "break the cycle of victimization and addictions that has them trapped."

However, Jabro said that prison programs have little to offer abuse survivors. She said that prison chaplains and volunteers help women reconcile their pasts, take responsibility for their crimes, experience God's forgiveness and begin making plans for a better future.

Tina Brown, an incest and domestic violence victim now serving a 25-year-to-life sentence for the attempted murder of her husband, said she once asked a priest: "Where should the shamed ones sit?"

"You sit in the front row!" he replied, moving her to tears.

About 250 Catholic and Protestant volunteers come in to teach, visit and support the women.

Dawn Davison, the acting warden, said ongoing contact with children is a key motivation for women who are trying to rehabilitate their lives and survive prison. It's a critical connection for children, too. But because of state budget cuts, visiting days have been cut from four to two. Women inmates say they want quicker clearance procedures for visitors, especially for family members visiting from far away, and "more toys in the visiting areas.

Romarilyn Baker, who has served 16 years for murder, said that many women there are determined to contribute to society. They read books onto tapes for the blind. They train puppies to serve as aide dogs and support a local shelter for battered women. Baker leads support groups on relapse prevention and domestic abuse.

"We do a lot of community service work so that we can heal and reconnect with the community and atone for our crimes," said Baker, 40. "We feel our remorse deeply. We're hoping that the community, God and our neighbors will accept the new creatures we've become. You can believe in second chances and still be tough on crime."
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Author:Hidalgo, Ellie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 21, 2005
Words:529
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