Md. prison adjusts for increase in female population
Prisons across the country are making changes as more women join the prison population
By Kelsi Loos
The Frederick News-Post, Md.
FREDERICK COUNTY, Md. — The Frederick County Corrections Bureau chief compared housing the increasing population of female inmates at the detention center to "trying to hammer square pegs into round holes."
The Frederick County Adult Detention Center, like short-term detention facilities across the country, has had an increasing number of women incarcerated, according to the Corrections Bureau chief, Lt. Col. William DeLauter. It has been making changes to respond to the shifting demographics.
Within the last year, the jail has hired a second female officer, corrections staff said. In the mid-1990s, the facility was renovated to add 20 beds for women, bringing the current total to 70 for women and 463 for men.
U.S. jails have seen a dramatic increase in incarcerated women over the past four decades, according to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice.
The number of people in jails has increased nearly fivefold, from 157,000 in 1970 to 745,000 in 2014, the report states. However, the total number of women in short-term detention centers increased at a much greater rate from nearly 8,000 to 110,000. The greatest increases of jailed women occurred in areas with lower populations like Frederick County.
Maj. Dave Ward, assistant chief of the Corrections Bureau, said the detention center has received requests from other jurisdictions to house female inmates when their local facility ran out of room. The jail has declined those requests so far, to avoid crowding, he said.
The female population at the Frederick jail was at its highest in 2008, when there were 840 women in detention programs, including work release and home detention. On Friday morning, the inmate population was 54 women and 296 men, DeLauter said.
DeLauter believes the increase in female inmates was largely driven by substance abuse, specifically heroin in recent years, he said.
The Vera Institute of Justice report found that a little less than one-third of female inmates were in jail for drug offenses.
Jail, it concluded, has a disproportionate impact on women, due to physiological factors including pregnancy and the need for feminine hygiene products, as well as psychological factors, such as a history of trauma and being a single parent. Nearly 80 percent of women in jails have children, the report states. Unlike incarcerated men, they are mostly single parents.
Frederick County Adult Detention Center inmates are allowed one visit per week. That includes a visit between a mother and child.
The group Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership aims to make it easier to maintain the bond between parent and child, even when the guardian is in jail.
President and founder Shari Ostrow Scher teaches a weekly eight-session parenting class for women at the jail. She said she has noticed that many feel a sense of guilt and frustration.
"For women to not be the mommy who's there is a special challenge," she said. "The word mommy has a special role connected to it."
In her experience, she said, the inmates are people who love their children, but made bad decisions, often spurred by substance abuse.
Women in jail are not only more likely than their male counterparts to be single parents, they are also more likely to have experienced sexual or domestic violence.
"For one thing, a lot of them have been victims of various type of abuse," DeLauter said. "A lot of this trauma has not been addressed."
The lingering effects of trauma can show up as negative behavior, he continued.
The Vera Institute of Justice found that 86 percent of women in jail had experienced sexual violence in their lives and more than two-thirds had been abused by a partner.
The Trauma, Addictions, Mental Health and Recovery, or TAMAR, group is a program that aims to help women in the Frederick County Adult Detention Center cope with past trauma. It is designed to help treat people who have a history of trauma and substance abuse.
The presence of social service programs like TAMAR appear to support the institute's conclusion that jails have become stopgap social service providers for people with mental health and substance abuse problems.
The group called for jail to be used as a last resort for women who are a flight risk or a danger to public safety and encourage criminal justice systems to consider women in decision-making and "commit to bringing women into the discussion."
DeLauter said he agreed that the jail has been increasingly used to provide social services as state treatment facilities close or no longer accept patients.
"That wasn't really in our job description," he said, adding that officers now receive training in how to better communicate with and respond to people with mental illness.