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January 18th, 2012 HANNAH HOFFMAN | Cover Story
 

Jail Birds

The fastest-growing group of inmates in Oregon: Women. A look inside Coffee Creek.

lede_jailbirds_3811IMAGE: leahnash.com
The archetypal prisoner of the last century wore stripes and carried a ball and chain. In the early part of the 21st century, he wore an orange jumpsuit. 

The typical 2012 inmate may instead look like Dawn Pearson.

Pearson is a 42-year-old mother of four who is serving more than two years at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for spending $342 with a stolen credit card at Walmart, Shell, Tobaccoville USA, Ross Dress for Less, Fred Meyer, Dollar Tree and Dairy Queen.

REPEAT OFFENDER: Dawn Pearson, 42, is in Coffee Creek prison for the second time on identity-theft charges.
IMAGE: leahnash.com
This inmate’s most distinguishing characteristic? Pearson is a woman. Instead of orange, she wears blue. Instead of tattoos, she wears heavy black eyeliner, and her bangs look like they miss the ’80s.

Pearson’s daughter was initially blamed for the stolen credit card because it was lifted from her middle-school principal.

“She was so humiliated,” Pearson says, crying. “My children have probably paid the biggest price for my coming to prison.”

Taxpayers are paying a high price as well. Pearson is part of a largely unnoticed but expensive trend in Oregon—the increase in the incarceration of nonviolent criminals. And this development has sent women to prison much faster than men.

In the past 10 years, the number of men in Oregon’s prison system increased by 28 percent.

During that same period, the number of female inmates grew by 86 percent.

Last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber formed the Oregon Commission on Public Safety to study how to rein in corrections costs. The commission found the prison population had increased much faster than Oregon’s population during the past 30 years.

What the Commission has yet to confront is how females are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, and that imprisoning women, when you consider all the costs, is more expensive than imprisoning men.

Females require more staff, medicine, programs and time—with counselors, visitors and caseworkers—than men. 

In addition, more than 75 percent of Oregon’s female prisoners are mothers, which often means the state has to take care of their kids. Sometimes, it means the state pays to deliver their babies.

Starting this month, this trend will only accelerate. Measure 57, which went into effect Jan. 1, lengthens sentences for repeat property and drug offenders. The more likely transgressors: women.

Craig Prins, who heads the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission and serves on Kitzhaber’s committee, says no one realized it was happening until after the fact.

“It really makes us think about, ‘What are we sending people to prison for?’” Prins says. “If we’re not thinking about these issues, we’re dealing with a stereotype in our minds, and the stereotype is not always what’s going on. If you say ‘ex-con’ or ‘criminal’ to someone, their mental image isn’t a woman. But that’s changing.”


In Oregon, if you are a woman and sent to state prison, you go to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which fully opened in 2002 and sits on 108 wooded acres outside of Wilsonville. Between 1,100 and 1,200 inmates are housed there, including one who waits on death row in a modified confinement cell. (See more information here.) In 2004, the population at Coffee Creek was smaller by 350.

From the outside, Coffee Creek looks like a bland office park, except for the coils of barbed wire along the tops of the chain-link fences. Several low-slung buildings make up the campus, and in between it’s all parking lots, beige paint, big doors, sidewalks and manicured shrubs.

It looks like a place where people might be doing your taxes. (In fact, about a dozen women are answering your DMV questions.)

Inside, it feels more like a community college. Colorful posters hang on the walls. A yellow one offers ideas about parenting. A purple one lists ways to eat healthier. In a cubicle in the fingerprinting room, a photo of Justin Bieber looks down.

Classes include quilting, small-business ownership, barista training, cosmetology, parenting, GED classes, yoga and nutrition.

An organic garden takes up most of the courtyard in the minimum-security complex. Soft, green shoots poke out of the tilled soil.

The high ceilings create odd acoustics. Doors slide and slam so loud they disrupt regular conversation. A woman walks by with a brown paper sack; its crinkling sound carries for yards. 

Even smells are stronger. The odor of lemon-scented cleaner is overpowering. Rover and Omaha, two of the puppies in the service-dog training program who go everywhere with their inmate trainers, can be detected before they come around a corner. 

In the cafeteria, inmates eat on trays like the ones in elementary school, divided into sections for different foods. They can have only a plastic spork utensil. Normal cutlery is banned.

Interestingly, although they can’t have forks, they can have razors for shaving. 

Some female inmates sport heavy eyeliner and glossy lipstick, while others opt for no makeup at all. Every woman wears jeans and athletic sneakers. They wear dark blue T-shirts; some wear sweatshirts or jean jackets. If they’ve misbehaved and lost privileges, they wear neon green shirts.

Inmates at Coffee Creek can’t touch each other. There are three exceptions to this rule: when grieving (with permission), for congratulations (with permission) and when they braid each other’s hair at the beauty bar.

PLAYING DRESS-UP: Chalonda Ford straightens Natalie Donohoe’s hair. This is one of the few times when inmates are allowed to touch each other. - IMAGE: leahnash.com

Heidi Steward, one of three assistant superintendents at the facility, says a women’s prison presents different challenges than a men’s prison.

Steward is tall, lanky and energetic, and wears a small nose stud. Along with Coffee Creek’s superintendent, Nancy Howton, she is among several women who run the prison, although a few men can be found in the administration.

Steward, 37, has spent most of her career with the Department of Corrections. She’s prepared with pie charts and statistics, but she talks about Coffee Creek’s inmates with compassion. She knows as much about their before-prison lives as she does about their crimes.

“A lot of the pathways that lead to prison are connected,” she says. “More women than men are victimized, and you just see them in a vicious cycle.”

According to DOC statistics, about a third of female prisoners have not completed high school. More strikingly, the vast majority are diagnosed at their medical evaluation as having mental-health issues. Sixty-four percent of the inmates at Coffee Creek have “serious and persistent mental health diagnoses,” such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and chronic depression, according to the DOC. And 89 percent of the inmate population entered prison addicted to drugs or alcohol.

All of those numbers are higher for women in prison than for men. In fact, prison is the only sector of American society where women have earned lower levels of education on average than men.

Jana Russell, the state administrator for behavioral health services, says this kind of population—disproportionately mentally ill, addicted and undereducated—is difficult and expensive to help.

“We’re a prison, so the focus isn’t mental health care,” she says.

But Russell says it should be more so at Coffee Creek, where the prison staff has learned to pay attention to inmates’ mental health. Being in prison can cause some women to show signs of mental illness for the first time.

“If you’re on the edge, this may push you over,” Russell says. “Or where they were masking symptoms with drugs or alcohol, we begin to actually see the symptoms.”

Last year, 52 inmates at Coffee Creek tried to kill themselves. One succeeded. 

Among the entire population at Oregon’s 12 male prisons—which comprises about 13,000 inmates—72 tried to kill themselves in 2011. That’s about 5.5 attempts per 1,000 inmates—one-tenth as many as the women.

Running a female prison has costs that male prisons don’t have. Coffee Creek has to pay for more mental health medication, according to Russell. Inmates also need counseling for those problems.

Steward says women require more time with caseworkers and counselors. Coffee Creek has one counselor per 150 inmates. Two Rivers Correctional Institution, a similar men’s prison in Umatilla, has one for every 300 inmates. 

“Males function in a hierarchical structure, but women are communicative,” Russell says. “We want to talk and we need to talk. Women share every aspect of their lives. Men keep secrets.”

Violence is less a way of life in a women’s prison (although the DOC says Coffee Creek inmates did something violent almost every other day in 2011), but sex plays a large role.

Rape and sexual assault are not common at Coffee Creek, but sexual liaisons are—even though consensual sex is forbidden.

According to DOC statistics, inmates at Coffee Creek had nearly three times as many unpermitted but consensual sexual acts as their male counterparts at Two Rivers did in 2011.

“Women have the need to be close to somebody,” Steward says. “It’s not uncommon for our women to have girlfriends.”

She says the relationships often lead to fights—breakups and jealousy hurt in prison, too. But because Coffee Creek is the only women’s prison in the state, it’s a problem.

“If there’s a conflict in a male facility, we can separate them by sending one of them somewhere else,” Steward says. “But with Coffee Creek, there’s no way to move them elsewhere.”


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