As their incarceration rate has skyrocketed over the past few decades, more women are serving time in prison, a place that wasn’t built for them
Jennifer Del Prete reflects on her struggles as inmate R79030 in Illinois state prisons; an Oregon prison touted as a progressive place contends with ingrained issues of incarceration
By Peter Adams, Annabel Edwards, Ike Swetlitz, Evelyn Wang, Brooke Wanser and Matthew Leonard Wright
The Medill Justice Project
On a chilly Friday in March of 2005, when a judge in Joliet, Illinois, convicted Jennifer Del Prete of first-degree murder, she felt nothing but numbness. A moment later, as she was being taken into custody, she screamed to no one in particular, “I didn’t hurt anybody!”
There was no response. She was escorted to a holding cell and ordered to remove her blazer. As soon as she was locked up, Del Prete thought about her children—her 7-year-old son Draven, who had just lost a tooth, and Tia, her 15-year-old daughter who was just getting into hip-hop—and how she would miss out on the rest of their childhoods. She thought about her upcoming sentencing and the decades she would be imprisoned. Finally, she thought about slicing her bare wrists against the cell’s sharp metal wiring so she could bleed out.
“I wanted to commit suicide that second,” Del Prete said, adding, “I just didn’t want to have this be our lives.”
Accused of shaking an infant to death, Del Prete, now 44, served nearly half of a 20-year sentence in Illinois state prisons. A federal judge freed her on bond last year in light of new evidence, including key information pointing to her innocence uncovered by The Medill Justice Project, which has been examining her case since 2012.
Del Prete said she chose not to kill herself because she didn’t want her cellmate—an older woman whose name she never knew—to suffer through witnessing the act. Once Del Prete was transferred to a county jail, she refused to speak and barely ate.
“I was just a zombie,” Del Prete said. She said she was medicated and isolated from the general inmate population for about two months. To pass the time, she wrote poetry about the life she “once had” and her conviction and God and how she would one day be set free:
“For I know this isn’t the end…this can NOT be my fate
I will prove my INNOCENCE! Until then, I will wait…”
For women like Del Prete across the country, prison can mean more than serving time; it means battling the demons of mental health issues on a greater scale than for men in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Prison for women often also means a sentence for their children, who are left on the outside growing up without their mothers. Many children fall under the watch of relatives or foster homes and find themselves relegated to a future of mental illness and struggles in school, studies show.
What’s more, assaults are a grim reality in prison, and, while they occur at higher rates among men, violence against women in prison is particularly insidious because it’s pervasive and a largely accepted part of prison culture, criminal justice experts say.
In a nation with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, which is resulting in inmate overcrowding, women are often considered an afterthought in a prison system built primarily for men. And the children of these mothers often turn to crime, creating a cycle of incarceration that costs taxpayers money and impacts communities throughout the country.
Women’s incarceration rates in the United States shot up 527 percent from 1978 to 2013, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That far outpaced the increase in the incarceration rate of men, which rose 248 percent over those 35 years. Women are more likely than men to be incarcerated for non-violent drug and property offenses, and the spike in female imprisonment is partly a consequence of the War on Drugs President Richard Nixon introduced in 1971 and President Ronald Reagan waged in the 1980s.
The dramatic rise in the number of women in prison “is wreaking havoc in institutions that are trying to figure out: Where do you put them and what do you do with them?” said Barbara Zaitzow, a criminal justice professor at Appalachian State University.
While men in prison vastly outnumber women, there were over 100,000 female inmates serving a sentence of at least a year in prison as of December 2013, according to the most recent figures available. In 1978, there were less than 12,000. Prisons like Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which opened in 2001 in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, have sought to be a model for incarcerated women in the United States. But persistent problems, such as assault, continue to plague such prisons.
Fight for life
Del Prete—inmate no. R79030—said she was a victim of an assault at Logan Correctional Center last year, remembering this: She was waiting alone in an open cell of a friend when another female inmate, a convicted murderer, suddenly attacked her and smothered her with a pillow. Del Prete said she suffocated for so long, the blood vessels in her eyes burst.
While she struggled to breathe, she said her attacker raped her.
“I almost died,” Del Prete said, adding, “I was, like, fighting for my life.”
While women make up 7 percent of the population in state and federal prisons, they are victims of sexual abuse in 22 percent of inmate-on-inmate cases and 33 percent of staff-on-inmate cases, according to the most recent report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Joycelyn M. Pollock, a criminal justice professor at Texas State University, said rape is a bigger problem in men’s prisons, but the victimization in women’s prisons is more subtle, taking place in a “sexually charged atmosphere” through widespread harassment and relationships that turn abusive.
“There’s a lot of sexual joking going on between officers and between officers and inmates,” Pollock said. “It sets the scene for true predators to take those extra steps. It’s almost like a bar scene atmosphere as opposed to a correctional facility.”
Most inmates don’t report sexual abuse because of a “fear of retaliation,” said Ashley G. Blackburn, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of North Texas. Inmates will intimidate victims who speak up and resort to violence, she said.
Sometimes correctional officers will punish inmates who report prison guards’ sexual abuse, Pollock said; for instance, officers will plant contraband—drugs or weapons—in a prisoner’s cell. “Inmates are always in fear that officers can write them up and mess up their parole dates,” she said. “What recourse do you have?”
To combat prison assaults, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, which established standards for prisons’ responses to sexual assault, such as separating the alleged victim from the alleged perpetrator during investigations. As a last resort, the federal standards allow prisons to place sexual assault victims in what is known as segregation, isolating them from the general inmate prison population as a protective measure.
Del Prete said the threat of segregation at Logan kept her from reporting her rape, which occurred just weeks before she was set free. For fights with other prisoners, she said she had been thrown into segregation before and she dreaded returning to a cramped cell, with limited access to the prison yard and minimal showers. Even more, she feared she wouldn’t be able to receive an expected telephone call about her imminent release from prison.
“You sit there for about 30 days until they get to you,” said Del Prete of segregation. “That’s why nobody tells, because nobody wants to sit in ‘seg’ for one day, let alone 30 days. … Eventually they’ll come and call you and ask you questions, but they take their time. You feel forgotten back there.”
Asked for comment, a prison spokesperson referred to the Illinois administrative code section on prisoner grievances and segregation.
Even if women in prison are reluctant to report sexual assaults, putting the number into question, about 8 percent said in a Bureau of Justice Statistics anonymous survey they were victims of such acts of violence. The number of incarcerated women who are subjected to other kinds of assaults is just as uncertain.
The extent to which prisons gather information about physical assaults varies, said Allen J. Beck, a senior statistical advisor at the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“There are very few outlets for escaping a violent situation,” said Bernadette Muscat, a professor and chairperson of the criminology department at California State University, Fresno. For instance, if women feel threatened or subjected to violence, they may not receive a requested cell change, Muscat said.
In 2007, when Del Prete said her nose was broken in a fight with an inmate at Dwight Correctional Center, she requested and was moved to protective custody. It didn’t protect her. Another inmate punched her in the face, breaking her nose again.
“I was in protective custody and got attacked on the yard,” Del Prete said. “She went right for my nose because she knew it was already broken.”
Dwight provided her with reconstructive surgery. She said the bone never healed properly.
A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections said she has “no comment to the statements made by former offenders.”
Mental illnesses are especially common among women in prison; 73 percent in state prisons and 61 percent in federal prisons have experienced such mental problems, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. For men, that number is 55 percent in state prisons, 44 percent in federal prisons.
Del Prete’s spouse, Karen “Slim” Alonzo, a former prisoner convicted of theft, burglary and possession of a controlled substance, said she knew some women who harmed themselves and committed or attempted suicide while incarcerated.
Alonzo said one time she was sitting on the top bunk in her cell at Dwight reading a magazine while her roommate, on the bottom bunk, was crying. Then there was silence, and Alonzo looked down. Her roommate had wrapped a sheet around her neck and tied it to the bed. She leaned forward to strangle herself.
Alonzo jumped down and fought with one hand to untie the sheet from the bed, using the other hand to loosen it from her roommate’s neck. She yelled for help and prison staffers arrived, using scissors to cut the sheet and save the woman’s life.
“By the time I walked out of there, I had tears coming down,” Alonzo said. “I was shook up.”
Shortly after Del Prete was incarcerated, her son Draven turned 8 years old. She wrote him a book with a two-inch pencil, had her sister type it up and got it smuggled back into the jail so she could give it to Draven when he visited. It was titled, “Draven’s Birthday Surprise,” and the plot involved him getting his own Dunkin’ Donuts shop, his favorite place.
Del Prete said she saw Draven and her daughter, Tia, about nine times a year and spoke with Draven on the telephone every day. Eventually, every day turned into every other day, and then every three or four days. “He wouldn’t really explain it too much,” said Del Prete’s sister, Summer Neal, about Draven. “At first, it started off like he just couldn’t go, and then it was, ‘Can you not go, or do you not want to go?’ And then it was, well, do we make him go?”
When Del Prete found out she would be released, she called Draven to tell him. He didn’t answer and didn’t come with her family to pick her up. Draven, 18, declined to comment for this story. “I can never get my son back,” Del Prete worries.
The majority of female state prisoners are mothers to children under 18, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and many struggle to keep in regular contact with their children. For inmates making pennies a day in prison jobs, mailing one letter could cost nearly a day’s wage.
At Logan, for instance, a pre-stamped envelope costs 58 cents, according to the department of corrections spokesperson.
“I got 90 cents a day to rake giant yards and to pick ice when it was freezing cold,” Del Prete said.
Prisons for women across the country do offer programs to help mothers stay connected to their children but time and distance get in the way of that connection: Parents are often imprisoned more than 100 miles from their former home and children, making visits difficult. More than half of mothers in state prisons reported they did not see their child at all during their incarceration, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent report.
In addition, children of incarcerated mothers are twice as likely to experience difficulty in school and are at a higher risk for depression, according to Susan Sharp, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“My position is, we’re locking up people that should never be in prison,” Sharp said. “What you’re doing really when you send mothers to prison who really don’t belong in prison—rather than getting them help, job training, drug treatment, mental health treatment, all the things they need—is you’re creating new generations in prison in the long run.”
Tending to heal
The garden rows lining the yard at Coffee Creek’s minimum-security prison present a lush array of plants, with tomato vines, oregano sprigs and sunflowers in full bloom. Women working with the prison’s garden program, introduced in 2009, tend to the vegetation for a nine-month vocational course that provides fresh produce to the kitchens, along with an opportunity to heal, some inmates say.
Honee, a prisoner convicted of burglary who declined to give her last name, said the garden helped her ease off of 17 medications, which she took as a combat veteran of Iraq suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It actually saved my life,” she said of the garden.
Another program, the Family Preservation Project, was introduced in 2010 to strengthen the bond between incarcerated mothers and their children. The project, funded by the Oregon Department of Corrections and run by Portland Community College, worked with about 30 women, teaching better parenting practices during their incarceration as well as after their release.
The state pulled funding for the project last year in part because of its six-figure costs, but state legislation recently approved funding with a new partner, the YWCA.
Heidi Steward, the Oregon Department of Correction’s assistant director of offender management and rehabilitation, said the program will cost less per inmate while reaching more incarcerated mothers. “We’re excited to have it back and have the program,” she said.
Coffee Creek, the only women’s prison in the state, offers many job-skills programs such as barista training, quilting, beekeeping and gardening. Instead of jumpsuits, the women wear jeans and T-shirts. The minimum security section looks less like a prison than a college campus: wide open spaces with benches, a running track and a coffee cart.
But Coffee Creek also grapples with the same challenges faced by other women’s prisons, including assault. Since 2002, more than 30 women have accused prison employees or contractors of sexual abuse, according to records obtained through an Oregon Public Records Law request with the state’s Department of Administrative Services. And in April, a former and a current Coffee Creek inmate filed a federal suit against the prison’s then superintendent and other prison and state officials, alleging an in-house physician sexually abused them during gynecological exams.
The prison’s internal investigation found no evidence to support the plaintiffs’ claims.
The Coffee Creek physician declined to comment through an Oregon Department of Corrections spokesperson, who noted the department of corrections does not comment on pending litigation but provided written policy, which states employees must go through a background check before employment.
“It’s my word against his,” said one of the plaintiffs who identified herself by her initials, K.B.; as with other media outlets, The Medill Justice Project does not disclose the names of those who say they have been sexually assaulted. “It’s, like, ‘Prove it,’ and he knows that. It just disgusts me.”
Revisiting the past
Del Prete tries to let go of her own painful past but finds herself inexorably drawn back to wisps of memories. A few weeks after her Independence Day wedding, Del Prete visited Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, a park about 20 miles southwest of Chicago where she and Alonzo married. Neither Draven nor Tia made it to the wedding.
More than a decade ago, Del Prete frequently brought her children to this park to play and walk the rambling trails and watch the frogs, turtles and caged owls and hawks.
“It’s like a past life, which was a good life, but I don’t think it’s going to be like that ever again,” Del Prete said.
Her children weren’t here this time. Tia, her little girl, grew up, got married and moved away. Draven, her little boy, feels even further away. Neither could be reached for this article.
“I don’t know what happened,” Del Prete said. “Do I have kids? It doesn’t feel like it.” She laughed mirthlessly. “I have to joke about it now ‘cause I don’t know what else to do.”