Authors Posts by Karen Shain

Karen Shain

Karen Shain
Karen Shain is responsible for developing and leading the Foundation’s criminal justice state and county policy work. She applies her policy knowledge and relationship building skills to develop statewide policies that will change California’s over-reliance on incarceration, while providing more support for services to our state’s most vulnerable women and families.

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Karen Shain, our Criminal Justice Program Officer, was invited to keynote the Solano County Women's Re-Entry Achievement Program (WRAP) graduation. Below is the transcript of her speech.

WRAP graduation

Congratulations! This is a huge achievement! Going through any kind of program and coming out the other end is always an achievement.

Starting a program while you are in jail and following all the rules and regulations of the jail system in addition to attending the programs, working, getting housing, reunifying with your family — this makes you all achievers and I hope you are all so proud of yourselves. I am in awe of each and every one of you.

The burden of poverty

I come to you from the Women’s Foundation of California. We are a statewide foundation that is dedicated to achieving economic security for California’s most vulnerable women and families. California has a huge poverty rate. We also have the highest incarceration rate in the country. We know that these two facts are not disconnected, that high poverty inevitably leads to increased incarceration.

Before I was at the Foundation, I worked at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC). In fact, it was through my work with LSPC that I had the privilege of visiting with women at Solano County Jail who were part of WRAP and I had the opportunity to speak at an event that you held during the Christmas holiday season one year.

The past is behind you

I am a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a sister, a worker, a partner, an advocate. These are things that I do that I am proud of. I’ve been known to tell a lie now and again, but I am not a liar. I refuse to be defined by the things I’ve done that I am not proud of, and I strongly urge you to do the same.

No one wants to be remembered or identified by the worst things we did or the worst things that ever happened to us. We all want to be identified by our strengths and our dreams.

I say this because if I have one word of advice for you this afternoon, it is that you insist that you not be called out of your names. You are not offenders, former offenders, repeat offenders or even former prisoners. You are women who are returning to your community with real skills and real understandings and real needs and dreams. You are returning residents and it is our job to welcome you back home.

Define your own future

You need housing, jobs, childcare, access to education, mental health and substance abuse services. Ironically, those are exactly the things that are hardest to come by during this difficult economic time. Services that you need, that will help you to succeed, have been drastically cut over the past five years. And even though the economy appears to be improving, even though our state is experiencing the first economic surpluses that we’ve seen in many years, those services that would most help you are not being restored.

It is a sad state of affairs when the only way you can get drug treatment in many of California’s counties is to get arrested and access those services while you are in jail. It is sad that many our our jails and prisons have become the largest mental health facilities in our state.

And so I leave you with this . . . congratulations, keep strong, work hard, give back, kiss your babies — and don’t let anyone define you by your past!

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We have an opportunity to make two historic changes to the way we fund CalWORKs (welfare to work) recipients in California, and thereby begin to right some serious wrongs.

Chopper (2)
Beverly Henry

In partnership with over 100 organizations, the Women’s Foundation of California is supporting the passage of SB 1029. Current law makes it impossible for people who, despite having completed their sentences, to receive CalWORKs (welfare to work) or CalFresh (food stamps) assistance for the rest of their lives because of a felony conviction. SB 1029 would repeal this lifetime ban.

When I think about how current law plays out in people’s lives, I am reminded of my friend Beverly Henry, a woman who was incarcerated several times for drug possession and low level sales. She was someone who was “doing a life sentence on the installment plan.” Four years ago, Beverly was released from Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) for the last time. Of course, being addicted to drugs was not the only definition of Beverly. In fact while incarcerated, she was a peer counselor for people with HIV and led advocacy efforts on behalf of women with hepatitis C and HIV. In that capacity, when a legislative select committee came to Valley State Prison for Women, she testified about the health care challenges facing incarcerated women who are living with these illnesses.

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The first thing I noticed when we walked into the cell block was a woman sitting on top of a metal table. She saw us and slowly crawled off the table to sit on a metal stool. That’s as far as she could go, because she was tethered to the table by a chain.

A guard told us it’s a violation to sit on the table, but they don’t sweat the small stuff in the mental health wing. We weren’t in a mental health facility; this was the Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF), L.A. County’s main women’s jail.

This is where CRDF holds seriously mentally ill women who don’t have the resources to be admitted into private mental health hospitals. The guards explained that the women were always under physical control. They could stay in their single cells (which contained a metal bed and a toilet), be locked into a shower by themselves, could go “outside” (though a roof prevents them from seeing the sky or the sun), or they could sit chained to a table in the “day room.”

As long as a County mental health professional deems them a danger to themselves or others, these women will be held indefinitely.  The only way out is for them to get better, but how can they get better under these circumstances?

Mental illness is not a crime; it is a disease. CRDF does not treat women with this disease. It only pushes them further inward, back into their demons. What I witnessed was torture. Is that the best we can do?

I left the mental health wing of CRDF with an extremely heavy heart. But I also realized that if the Sheriff’s Department showed us this mental health wing – something they can’t be proud of – they must be looking for advocates to help them fund a new jail with improved conditions for women.

But even the goal of “improved” conditions misses the point.  Treatment, not incarceration, is the solution for most women, and effective treatment cannot happen under duress.

Nearly one out of every three women (31 percent) in county jails is there because of mental illness, which is double the percentage for men. As the nation and California dismantled mental health facilities and funding over the decades, our jails and prisons have become the largest mental institutions in the country. Believe it or not, they are also the largest geriatric facilities and homeless shelters.

Building more jails will not help these women or men, nor will it stop cycles of crime that jeopardize our neighborhoods and our personal safety because it is well-known that persons with mental illness who are put in jail have much higher rates of recidivism than those who receive mental health treatment in the community. Managing mentally ill people in our prisons and jails is also far more expensive than providing treatment in the community – treatment which is also much better than what is provided in jail.

This is not only about Los Angeles; it’s a national problem. But Los Angeles has the opportunity to do something better.

The LA Board of Supervisors is at a crossroads. They have several proposals before them to construct both a new women’s and mental health jail. The construction cost? Between $1.4-$1.6 billion, which does not include operating expenses, such as the almost $250 per day it costs to house and treat a woman with mental illness in jail. What if we tried something different—and better? Let’s redirect these billion plus dollars and invest instead in comprehensive and humane mental health and substance abuse treatment. As the Affordable Care Act (ACA), our national health reform law, is implemented in coming months, we have an opportunity to expand mental health and substance abuse access and treatment. Under ACA people who are financially eligible will be able to get mental health and substance abuse treatment at very little cost to California, but ONLY if they are not in jail.

California’s residents who bear the double burden of being impoverished and mentally ill should not find that their only option for mental health treatment is available if they fall into the criminal justice system. Treating them in the community would be the real way to improve their lives and those of their families and community, not putting them in a new and costly jail.

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Once these prisons are opened and filled, there will be little incentive to reduce the number of people in them and California will continue to lead the country in prisoners while falling further and further behind in education, health care and human services.

Karen Shain
Karen Shain

Last week, Governor Brown made a proposal to reduce prison overcrowding by finding 10,000 new prison beds. He would do this by leasing a private prison in the Mojave Desert, delaying the closing the Norco ) a prison in Southern California that is in notoriously bad shape), and increasing the number of people transferred to prisons in other states.

As this Los Angeles Times Editorial points out, California has a habit of prioritizing prisons over education. Over the past 30 years, California has built over 25 new prisons and one state university. The state has never been able to close a prison and it has continued to stuff more and more people in the ones they have. As of August 21, 2013, Central California Women’s Facility is over 175% of capacity (see CDCR website here).

I couldn’t agree more with the UT San Diego news: not one of these ideas is new, and all of them are bad.

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Prisoners’ rights and social services advocates are working together to devise a different plan—one that safely reduces the prisoner population while providing support to communities who welcome these prisoners home.

Karen Shain
Karen Shain

After years of deficits and painful budget cuts, California has finally begun pulling itself out of the abyss. For the first time in many years, the state’s reserve dollars are growing and now total about $1.5 billion. These are general fund dollars that could fund California’s health and human services system, which provides essential services to California’s most vulnerable people, such as low-income women and their families, during times of economic hardship. Yet because of severe budget cuts, these programs such as CalWORKs cash assistance for children and families, subsidized childcare that helps women to find and keep work, and mental health treatment have been slashed year after year.

Unfortunately, a plan is in the works to use these new reserves IMMEDIATELY to alleviate overcrowding in California’s state prisons. Rather than comply with the federal court order to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated, Governor Brown has spent the past 18 months appealing that order despite constant rebuffs from the federal court.

The Supreme Court has weighed in (twice) requiring compliance with the court order, and finally the Governor is acting to reduce overcrowding to constitutional levels. What is his plan? To reopen select private prisons around the state, while also sending more prisoners to private prisons in other states across the country.

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Being pregnant is a time that many women feel hope and connection and a commitment to making the world a better place for themselves and their children.

photo from Daily Beast
photo from Daily Beast

So today was supposed to be the day! I was going to be interviewed on a national TV show – Raising America. They were going to send a car and get me there early for hair and makeup. The topic?  Prison nurseries.  Here’s the link:

In some places (New York State and federal prisons for example), a pregnant woman who is incarcerated can give birth and keep her baby with her in a “prison nursery.” This allows mother and baby to bond with each other. Different locales have different rules about how long a baby can stay with the mother – it can range from 6 months to two years.  However, in many cases they are not separated because the mother’s sentence comes to an end and both mother and baby are released together.

I was invited to speak on the subject because I advocated for many years for incarcerated parents when I was Policy Director at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children .

For some reason, my segment on Raising America was cancelled. I was disappointed because I have something to say about this topic, so I thought I would go ahead and share my thoughts here.

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