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Women to be shipped to rural Pa. prison

(Published May 3, 1999)


Staff Writer

About 40 pregnant D.C. women live behind bars at the Correctional Treatment Facility on Capitol Hill. Under a contract announced this month, they will eventually be shipped out along with more than 200 other female inmates to a private prison in Phillipsburg, Pa., a tiny coal mining town about 200 miles from Washington.

If no one claims the babies that are born to the D.C. women there, they could end up wards of the state of Pennsylvania.

"Theyíll go to the hospital to have the baby, stay a few days, and then come back to the prison without the baby," said Amy Schmidt, spokeswoman for Cornell Corrections, the company that will own and run the prison. "Itís pretty sad."

The federal Bureau of Prisonsí $342.6 million contract announced April 2 went largely unnoticed by D.C. residents and city leaders. But not by the cityís inmates.

When the women at the CTF heard they were going to be shipped out, morale plummeted, said Joe Johnson, a corrections professional and a member of the board of Corrections Corporation of America which operates the facility.

"Theyíre depressed," he said. "They donít want to go to their classes or programs. They just donít see any point."

The move will all but eliminate the few visits the women get, said Joyce Scott, a longtime activist for rehabilitation of female inmates.

"Women will go to see their men who are incarcerated, but men donít go to see their women," she said. "Most of the visits these women get are from their children. But Pennsylvania is far, and most of these families donít have money to travel."

Although some say people who have committed crimes donít necessarily deserve visits from friends and family, Scott argues that contact with family is one of the only ways to help inmates change for the better. Family support can help prevent inmates from coming out of prison more violent and angry than they were when they went in, she said.

Scott, like other advocates for inmates in the D.C. area, is outraged that the women, most of whom are serving time for non-violent drug offenses, are being sent away.

"If you are going to do any shipping, ship the men," said Rahim Jenkins, a retired D.C. corrections officer. "I canít imagine why the womenís groups arenít up in arms about this."

If few people in D.C. seem to care about where the cityís inmates are sent, it may be because no one from D.C. had a say in the decision.

As part of the federal shutdown of the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax, Va., custody of all D.C. inmates is to be handed over to the federal government by 2001. Where they go is up to the Bureau of Prisons, which sends inmates to federal prisons across the country and awards competitive contracts to private prison companies for new facilities.

In the making of the Phillipsburg deal, no one from D.C. had an official seat at the table, said Cornellís Schmidt. Most of their contacts were with the folks in Pennsylvania and officials at the Bureau of Prisons, she said.

With no official role for the District in the prison decision and so many other issues crowding the public agenda, the prison issue just slipped by, some say.

"Especially with the women, I thought we were going to try to keep them in the District," said Pauline Sullivan, head of the D.C. chapter of an inmate advocacy group called CURE. "(Former city council chairman) Dave Clarke, he would have helped us. But if you look at the present council, I just donít see the interest."

About 300 female prisoners, 350 teens and 350 minimum-security men will start moving to the new prison in January 2000.

Cornell promised the Phillipsburg area 300 new jobs at the prison, said Stan LaFuria, executive director of the economic development group that helped bring Cornell and its $12 million payroll to town. Most of the guards will be locals, and the number of black residents in the area, he said, is "next to none."

Schmidt said Cornell executives are concerned about the racial dynamics in the facility and will recruit aggressively at historically black colleges and elsewhere to ensure a racial mix among the officers.

"We have a very good ratio of minority staff at our other facilities," she said, pointing out that the warden at Cornellís Georgia facility is black. Senior positions at the Philipsburg prison will be filled by conducting a nationwide search for experienced corrections professionals.

For the last six years, Cornell has operated two programs for young people in the District who are awaiting trial or who have served time, under a contract with the Department of Human Services. The programs serve about 80 young people, said executive director Linda Harllee.

The Phillipsburg prison will offer a variety of work and educational opportunities for inmates, Schmidt said.

"We believe in treatment," she said. "We are going to keep them busy. They are not going to be sitting watching TV all day."

Schmid also said Cornell would try to institute a program to allow pregnant in-mates to spend more time preparing for childbirth and spending time with their newborns.

The third largest private prison company in the U.S., Cornell operates 52 correctional facilities in 12 states. More than 12,000 inmates are in Cornellís custody.

Cornellís annual revenue has risen from $3.2 million in 1993 to $70.3 million in 1997. In April, Cornell submitted a bid to the Bureau of Prisons for a contract to house 1,200 low-security men at a facility adjacent to the Phillipsburg site.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator