On the Outside

The number of women in Arizona prisons has multiplied more than five-fold since 1978--and there's not enough help for them to become productive citizens after being released

Patricia Cartwright started drinking at age 9. By 14, she was hooked on heroin and living on the streets of Phoenix, hanging with motorcycle gangs and drug addicts. In and out of county jails on shoplifting and other charges, Cartwright gave birth to two boys on the street. By the time she was 20, her sons were living with her mother and sister, and Cartwright was doing time in prison for armed robbery after she and two friends, high on acid and mushrooms, held up a string of Circle K convenience stores.

During her first week at the Arizona State Prison Complex at Perryville, Cartwright was terrified to be in a place that seemed so secluded from the world, living with offenders she considered far more violent than herself. So she adapted to her surroundings the only way she could.

"My time inside was like it was on the street," said Cartwright, now 43 and in recovery. "I just learned how to be a bigger criminal inside. There was a lot of fighting. I was still using drugs inside. It was like being in a big summer camp, except you had a fence around you."

Cartwright said since she went to Perryville in 1982, things have gotten a lot stricter in prison. Rules are tougher, and it's not as easy today to get drugs inside. There are also more rehabilitation and counseling services available then there were in the 1980s, although Cartwright and others argue there are still far from enough.

A more disturbing change has also occurred--a huge increase in the number of women serving time.

Between 1978 and 1999, the number of women incarcerated in Arizona jails and prisons increased 511 percent, from 515 to 3,147 inmates, with the growth in women's incarceration outpacing the growth of Arizona's female population, according to the Women's Prison Association, a national advocacy organization for women with criminal backgrounds.

Similar trends can be seen in prisons nationwide during the last two decades, with drug offenders making up the majority of the increased female inmate population.

It's not necessarily that more women have entered the drug world, said Corey Knox, director of the Inside Out Project, a program of the Southern Institute for Research on Women at the UA intended to raise social awareness of the obstacles faced by formerly incarcerated women trying to re-enter society. Instead, Knox said, the increase is due in large part to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, enacted by Congress in 1986, which require judges to deliver fixed prison sentences to drug offenders.

Mandatory drug sentencing laws have caused an increase in the prison population across the board, but the increase has been much greater for women, Knox said, since women at the bottom rungs of the drug business are more likely to get caught and less likely to be able to give prosecutors the information necessary for a chance at a sentence reduction.

That means more women, like Cartwright, are spending years behind bars. Many of them have never held a legitimate job and have depended on men for their livelihoods. They're often mothers of young children.

Although men still far outnumber women in prisons, the growing women's population presents unique social challenges, especially when their official prison sentences are over.

When Cartwright got out of prison in 1992, she didn't feel like she belonged on the outside.

"I got out and I was scared, and I thought there was no way I could make it in this world," Cartwright said. "I thought, 'Who's going to hire me?'"

So she started using again, and in 1997, she went back into prison for forgery and fraudulent schemes for making counterfeit checks.

Cartwright's rapid return to crime is not unusual. Around two-thirds of all former inmates will re-offend and return to prison within two years after they are released, said Knox.

Finding employment out of prison is especially difficult for women, said Diane Wilson, a career counselor and former director of PHASE (Project for Homemakers in Arizona Seeking Employment), which teaches job and life skills to low-income women and women who have been in prison. That's because women are less likely than men to have had a legitimate work history before entering prison, and because many women have relied financially on boyfriends or husbands for much of their lives, Wilson said.

But in a society that places so much value on work, and in which participation in the labor force is of utmost importance, there are obstacles to employment at every turn for former inmates, especially for women.

Even for individuals who might otherwise be qualified for a job, the simple application question, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" can be enough to chase away an applicant whose answer is "yes"--sometimes toward a return to a life on the street. Housing applications usually ask the same loaded question, making it difficult for former inmates to find safe and affordable living arrangements.

Because a person can't usually get a job without an address and can't afford a place to live without a job, a dangerous cycle is set in motion, Knox said.

Jobs that don't do criminal background checks or that will hire felons are not always ideal. Many are minimum-wage jobs in industries like fast food, hotels or car washes, Wilson said. The better-paying jobs, offering $10 to $15 an hour, are usually construction jobs or other jobs that require physical labor and which are held predominately by men.

Wilson said the PHASE program offers training for women for non-traditional jobs like plumbing and welding, but women are less likely to gravitate toward higher-paying, male-dominated careers. Instead, women are often more likely to seek out jobs in social services or child care, fields that certainly don't take felony convictions lightly, as 56-year-old Michele Convie learned firsthand.

Convie was a middle-class Catholic schoolgirl when she started sniffing glue at age 14. She was rebelling against her parents, living as a hippie in the San Francisco Bay Area when she gave birth to her daughter in 1967 at age 17. Eight years later, Convie went to prison on drug-possession charges and spent two years there.

Attempting to get a fresh start, Convie later moved to Arizona to be near her mother and daughter, but she continued using, and her second felony conviction came in 1985 when she went back to prison for dealing. Convie's second grandchild was born during her two-year sentence.

When the 35-year-old was released in 1987, several tragic blows forced Convie to take on a level of responsibility she had never known before. In a span of just a few years, her grandmother passed away; her mother and stepfather were diagnosed with cancer, and two friends died of AIDS. That's when Convie knew she had to take control of her life.

"Life started really happening big-time, and I figured I better get the message," Convie said. "Whatever the higher power is was beating me over the head with a brick."

Her drug-hazy years now a distant memory, Convie has reunited with her daughter and two grandchildren and works at New Beginnings, a shelter and counseling center for homeless women and children. She is also a coordinator and member of the speakers' board of the Inside Out Project, which allows her to educate the community on the best ways to reintegrate women coming out of prison into the community.

In 2002, Convie started taking classes at Pima and is now preparing to start her senior year at Arizona State University's School of Social Work in Tucson, where, at 56, she is pursuing her bachelor's degree in social work.

"I'm so normal now; I still go through times when I'm surprised at my daily life," Convie said.

But Convie's felony convictions followed her through life, and her success story was not without its hurdles. Before she landed her job at New Beginnings, Convie was turned down for a position at La Frontera behavioral health center because her felony conviction barred her from working with children or the mentally ill. She had no idea at the time that her past would get in the way of her passion.

Determined to work in social services, Convie appealed her case to the state, and after a year-long process, she was able to get fingerprint clearance for full work privileges, which she said required not only proof that she'd stayed clean, but proof that she had gone above and beyond, getting an education, interning or volunteering in the community.

Anyone with a felony conviction must constantly prove themselves to society, long after their official sentences have been served, Convie said. Simply playing by the rules is not always enough.

"You're just not quite good enough," Convie said. "You think, 'I've paid a lot of taxes; why am I not acceptable? I have the skills the society has set up for me.'"

Convie said she feels fortunate to have an education, and both Knox and Wilson said the goal should be to get all women released from prison into school. But affording education on a minimum-wage income is no easy task, and a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act makes it even more difficult. The amendment prohibits anyone with a drug conviction from receiving federal financial aid for post-secondary education.

"People didn't like that people who'd been in prison could get an education at the government's expense," Knox said. "But it costs society more to have them in prison."

It costs an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 per inmate per year to keep a person in jail, Knox said.

Convie said with so many obstacles in obtaining an education or well-paying job, it's no wonder many former inmates return to a life of crime.

"They can make more money as a prostitute. That's the only way they can feed their kids."

And many women who come out of prison have children to care for. Sixty-five percent of women in state prisons are mothers of children less than the age of 18, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, and are more likely than men to stay in contact with their children while in prison.

They are also generally more determined than men to reunite with their children and families after release, Convie said, and women who are able to get their children back face the emotional and financial burdens of rebuilding and caring for a family, often with no monetary or child-care assistance.

The welfare reform act of 1996 prohibits anyone with a drug-related felony conviction from receiving food stamps and welfare cash benefits, although felons convicted of more heinous crimes don't face the same restrictions.

"If you murder someone or chop someone up, you can get food stamps, but not if you have a drug conviction," Convie said.

Although some states have opted out of the federal ban on aid for drug offenders, the restrictions remain in place in Arizona, making it difficult for low-income women with drug-related convictions to support themselves and their families.

With so many barriers to reentry for women, Convie said society creates "an underclass" of people who are expected to play by the rules, but who face countless barriers in doing so and who are forever haunted by their pasts. A prison sentence of three to five years, Convie said, actually lasts much longer.

"It's the rest of your life," she said. "No matter what you do, you can never get rid of your record. It's like you've got the scarlet letter and the brand."

And the stigma for women prisoners is different than that of men, Knox said.

"Women are expected to be sainted virgins and mothers," she said. "There's a misconception that women who have been in prison have done something really bad."

Knox said she hopes the Inside Out Project will shed light on the issues women face when coming out of prison and that project participants like Cartwright and Convie can and help the community understand that the women in question deserve a new start.

"These are our neighbors and our moms and our grandmas," Knox said.

In addition to educating the community, Cartwright and Convie say the prison system must do a better job at preparing inmates--from the first day of their sentence--for what will happen when they get out: the challenges they will face, the steps they should take, and how to keep from returning to prison.

Cartwright said it was rehabilitation and counseling programs that finally helped her get back on her feet after she finished her second prison sentence and was determined not to go back.

After she was released the second time in 2000, Cartwright entered a transitional housing program, which helped her find a job and a place to live. Cartwright struggled to stay clean--she started using heroin again and was fired from a job she'd gotten through the program--but this time, she went to the program staff for help.

Cartwright then spent time in a halfway house where she said intensive counseling with other people who had lives similar to hers made her slow down. But she left the house when she got involved with a man she met there. She moved in with him, and it wasn't long before her boyfriend started using drugs again.

This time, Cartwright knew she'd had enough.

"I had to get out of there," Cartwright said. "I don't want it anymore. I was tired of the abuse. I think from all the counseling I'd had in the past, something was clicking with me."

So she contacted Tucson's Oasis House for Women, a then-newly opened 90-day transitional housing program for women released from prison. She moved in there.

After she completed the program, Cartwright was asked to be house manager. She said helping other women at the Oasis House is her passion.

"I love it," Cartwright said. "I know what they're going through when they come out, and I'm able to walk them through it and assure them, 'This is what you're going to feel; this is what you are going to go through, and I'm here to help.'"

Cartwright has reunited with her two sons, ages 21 and 23, and is pursuing her associate's degree in social services at Pima Community College.

As a member of the Inside Out Project's speakers' board, Cartwright said she wants to stress getting women more counseling and rehabilitation help before their release.

"It takes so long to work through your issues, and we need to get more folks to help us," she said. "What I'd like to focus on is getting the women while they're inside."

Some women inmates are able to serve the end of their sentences at the Southern Arizona Release Center, a 180-bed, all-female facility, with 30 beds for inmates on release status, which offers some rehabilitation and re-entry programs and classes to inmates in at least the last 18 months of their sentence. But some say this is too little, too late.

"The little bit of stuff that's happening is not preparing people," Convie said. "It needs to start the day you walk into prison."

And since it is largely up to the inmate to choose what programs to participate in at SACRC, Convie said many don't make good use of what is available, and inmates are released unprepared for the outside world.

Dora Schriro, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, the first woman to ever head the department, agrees that rehabilitation for inmates needs to start sooner, and has developed a re-entry initiative, a five-year plan to increase basic education and GED classes for inmates, expand the department's capacity for drug and alcohol treatment, give inmates more community service and work opportunities on the inside, and offer self-help and transitional programs in areas like anger management, domestic violence, cultural diversity, housing and work and leisure skills.

Schriro said since she became department director in 2003 and began developing the re-entry initiative, the number of inmates who have earned high school diplomas inside prison has quadrupled. Schriro said she hopes several more improvements will be fully implemented in the next two to three years with little extra cost.

"We're not adding teachers. We're using the instructors and school space we have; we're just making better use of it," Schriro said.

For people like Convie, improvements in inmate-rehabilitation programs are long overdue.

"What we're doing now does not work," Convie said. "If this were a business making this kind of product, it would be out of business."

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