06/27/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

Female Inmates: Unique Challenges and Needs

When we think of a female offender, Andrea Yates, Lindsay Lohan, or even the acquitted Casey Anthony come to mind. But these are high profile cases and not representative of the norm.

Most people never get to see the inside of a prison. When I was a graduate student, I organized a tour for 20 future policy wonks coming out of Harvard's School of Government. I thought it was important that these presumptive future policy makers see what it's really like inside a prison.

You might think that it is drug offenders or violent offenders or illegal immigrants that are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, and if you did, you would be wrong. Female prisoners are the fastest growing segment of inmates, and they pose unique challenges that many male inmates don't face.

The Superintendent (Warden) Lynn Bissonnette of MCI-F told our group of one especially sobering recurring issue: Too often, a pre-sentenced female inmate arrives at MCI-F and the first thing she says is that she has a child who is getting off a school bus and no one is going to be there to get that child. What a nightmare, and this happens virtually every week.

Fortunately, when this does happen, MCI-F does a lot of crisis intervention where they get on the phone with local police departments or the appropriate state agency to address the immediate needs of the child. And for those of you who might be thinking that the mother should not have put the child in that situation by committing a crime in the first place, remember that detained inmates are innocent until proven guilty.

This is more than just a slogan for use by defense attorneys. Bogus and false arrests happen. Most people are quick to judge until someone they know and care about screws up and is on the wrong side of the law. When that happens, you'll want that person to receive fair treatment, and for fair justice to run its course, even if the person is guilty.

This all-female inmate prison houses detained inmates awaiting trial, county-sentenced inmates and state-sentenced inmates. It is a very complex system to operate. The many needs are diverse and the resources are scarce. One of the most striking things about the prison is the professional staff. The manner in which they have normal conversations with the inmates, remaining firm and consistent in enforcing the rules speaks well to the professional nature in which this facility operates. Sure there are times when a staff member might act out of line, but that staff also faces consequences.

Some of the statistics that we see in MCI-F include that on any given day, 65 to 70 percent of inmates are active mental health patients; there might be 15-20 pregnant women incarcerated at any one time; and about two-thirds are incarcerated on a nonviolent-related charge. Female offenders have a slightly higher rate of recidivism (42 percent) than male offenders (39 percent).

The days of busting rocks are over. Not only does that not deter from future crime, it is a waste of time in that an inmate could be taking part in some form of recidivism-reducing program, of which there are many. And for the critics of inmate programming, we already know the alternative. Just locking them up and not participating in programming just doesn't work.

Warehousing inmates is a waste of time and money. Most importantly, in this country, we don't send people to prison for punishment; we send them to prison as punishment. This notion is an American value so deeply rooted in our culture that we made it the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (no cruel and unusual punishment).

One of the most pressing problems that offenders face is not so much the time they are incarcerated, but post-release. A criminal record is a double-edged sword; it is intended to alert the public that someone is potentially troublesome but it also acts as a barrier to successful reintegration, impairing job and housing opportunities.

Another common misconception of prison is that the prison environment is comparable to that of a country club. Sure inmates can watch TV, but TV decreases inmate misconduct and assaults on staff. If you have not worked in a prison, you probably don't realize that a bored inmate often becomes a safety issue for prison staff, who are our family, friends, and state employees.

Remember, warehousing inmates is not the solution. Successful reintegration is the goal, and you don't get this by being bored a in a cell all day; you get it through education and job training. Reducing recidivism is a science and public safety issue, not a partisan issue. Unfortunately, it becomes a political issue around election time or when people don't know what they are talking about.

At 9 a.m., as I was waiting for my group of classmates to arrive, I got talking to an inmate who was cleaning the floor. She made a comment about how she did not like her job mopping the floor but she noted that mopping is better than just spending time in her cell doing nothing. Joking around, my response to her was "if you don't like it here, maybe you shouldn't come back." She smiled and agreed that was her intention.

This post was originally published in the The MetroWest Daily News.

Paul Heroux is a former Director of the Research and Planning Division at the Mass. Department of Correction and former Assistant to the Commissioner of the Philadelphia jail system. He has a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at