Jail Birds

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

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.

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.

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."



Instead, it's because the Oregon Legislature passed a number of laws over the past 15 years focusing on nonviolent crimes.

  1. In 1996, the Legislature passed a bill that sent repeat property offenders to prison. Prior to 1996, repeat property offenders were typically given probation.
  2. In 1999, the Legislature passed a bill that included “identity theft” as a property crime. Identity theft was only becoming an issue at the time, but within a few years, thanks to the growth of the Internet and availability of credit cards, it became a frequent crime.
  3. In 2001, the Legislature created a broader definition of “repeat offenders” for property crimes, resulting in more people being sent to prison rather than placed on probation.

Because women commit property crimes at very high rates compared to other crimes, those changes created a spike in the number of women going to prison. 

According to Department of Corrections data, roughly the same number of women commit felony property crimes every year, but during the past decade, more have gone to prison for them.

Only 6.5 percent of women convicted of felony property crimes in 2000 went to prison. But in 2011, 18.6 percent of them did. (That's slightly lower than the peak of 21.7 percent in 2010.)

Eric Mellgren, a retired Medford police chief and Southern Oregon University criminology professor, says ID theft goes hand-in-hand with meth addiction, and it's popular with women because it's a relatively safe crime. 

"There is very little physical risk," he says. "You're not going to get attacked by a large dog or get shot by a homeowner. Women might tend to do [ID theft] rather than commit a violent crime."

It's also lucrative. "One good ID thief can steal as much online as all the burglars and robbers in Medford in a year," Mellgren says.

Oregon isn't alone in this trend. Susan Phillips, a research analyst with the Sentencing Project—a national research and advocacy group—says putting more women in prison for property crimes is a national trend.

According to the Sentencing Project, the number of women in prisons nationwide has increased 400 percent since 1985, double the growth rate for men. 

"You're not leading the country in this by any means," Phillips says. "[Oregon] isn't the craziest state in these things by far."

But the feminization of this country's prison system is unique. The United States imprisons more women per capita and more women as a proportion of all inmates than any other major developed country in the world, according to data collected by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Kevin Mannix is a former state representative and ex-chair of Oregon's Republican Party. He has run unsuccessfully for governor, attorney general and Congress, but he is best known as the father of Measure 11, the aforementioned initiative that put more violent criminals behind bars. He is also the reason why, in 2012, the number of women entering prison is expected to grow, creating concerns at Coffee Creek, which has room for about only 100 more inmates. 

The Oregon Legislature was so concerned about the consequences of Mannix's measure—namely, building more prisons—that it referred to voters a competing measure that also established minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes but wasn't so tough as Mannix's measure.

Measure 57, the alternative to Mannix's 61, passed in November 2008 but only went into effect this January.

Until the start of 2012, an ID-theft conviction would earn someone at least 13 months in prison. Now, ID theft carries a minimum sentence of 18 months.

Mannix says he never considered how his ideas would impact women. "It did not come up," he concedes.

But he says prison could be good for some women: "There could be a chance to change someone's life by pulling them out of the corrosive environment they were part of."

Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), one of two Democrats who sponsored House Bill 3057 in 1999—making identity theft a property crime that could carry a prison sentence—says no one thought about gender at the time.

"I don't remember us having any data in front of us as to the impact on either gender," he says. "I think anyone who has been a victim of identity theft wants anyone who is committing those offenses to be held accountable, whether they're men or women."

For all the issues that accompany female inmates—mental illness, razors, relationship needs, sanitary pads—the most profound is motherhood. More than 75 percent of the inmates at Coffee Creek have children, and some are pregnant when they enter the prison. Inmates had 16 babies last year, down from 21 in 2010.

This creates indirect costs for the state: foster care. Most children live with their mothers, so they must go somewhere when their moms go to prison.

Gene Evans, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Human Services, says it costs the state about $2,000 per month to have a child in foster care. The average stay is about 15 months, which means each stay costs taxpayers about $30,000—the same as one year in prison.

Among Dawn Pearson's four children, one of them lives in a foster home. Frankie, 16, looks like a smaller version of her mother, with tomato-red fingernails and a big gray sweatshirt whose cuffs she pulls over her hands.

Frankie is an expensive teenager. She has drug and anger problems and requires a drug support group, lawyer, regular urinalysis tests, special classes at school and a caseworker—all paid for by taxpayers.

If this is an argument for keeping women out of prison, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Michael McShane doesn't buy it, particularly for longtime meth addicts.

He says sometimes motherhood can keep a woman out of prison. DHS pays for mothers to go through drug treatment, so judges sometimes allow women who are unlikely to reoffend to stay on probation and go to rehab. 

Often, however, meth trumps motherhood.

McShane says he has seen women addicted to meth starve and neglect their children, but then insist they stole credit cards to feed them.

"No," he says. "You were buying meth."

In Dawn Pearson's case, she stole the credit card of her daughter's principal only 18 months after ending her first, five-year stay at Coffee Creek for identity theft and meth offenses. After she got out, she began using drugs again.

That's the reality of Coffee Creek. Women are likely to reoffend because their crimes are so connected to their addictions, and for many of them, probation doesn't work.

"Usually if we're looking at sending women to prison, they've burned through the programs here," McShane says.

He opposes mandatory minimum sentences and would like to preserve more judicial discretion. But he says many of these women need to go to prison.

"Sometimes we're worried that a person's going to kill themselves if we don't send them to prison," he says.

McShane says prison is often the only way to get addicts into drug treatment, which is the only way to make them stop offending. He says that's largely because local drug treatment programs have been cut and also because addicts are required to get treatment in prison. He says they need to spend at least two years in prison to make real progress.

Though it's controversial to say, McShane maintains that a woman who simply will not stop breaking the law, to whom drugs have become more important than her children, the choice is clear—Coffee Creek.

“If they’re there,” he says, “it’s because no one trusts they can be let out in the community.” 

The Woman on Death Row

One woman at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility waits on death row. 

Witnesses said McAnulty had beaten, starved and tortured her daughter while favoring her other children, a younger girl and boy. They said she kept Jeanette out of school and locked in a room where the girl slept on a piece of cardboard.

Police said Jeanette was so emaciated and her growth so stunted when they found her body that they didn't believe she was 15.

McAnulty's crime landed her in a modified solitary confinement cell at Coffee Creek. She can exercise and work, but must do it alone. She eats alone, but there are a few inmates with whom she plays cards and chats with behind a glass partition so she, according to Coffee Creek officials, can "preserve her social skills."

She is starting the appeals process on her death sentence.