The Women of Ellensburg: Issues of Women in Washington State
The Problems of "Forgotten Offenders"
In the past, women in prison were often referred to as "the forgotten offender." A low proportion of prisoners were women. Those who were incarcerated did not protest about their concerns.
Both the numbers of women incarcerated and their protests are increasing. The FBI reports that, between 1960 and 1975, the arrest rate for women rose more than 100% faster than did the rate for men. Female prisoners are also becoming more vocal about their concerns. In 1976, inmates of the Seattle-King County women's jail attracted the attention of the media when they complained of sex discrimination in recreation facilities (men had a volleyball court, women a 10-foot square furnished room) and commissary items (male-oriented magazines, cigars, and tobacco were in abundance while women-oriented items were scarce.) They also complained of inadequate health care, including lack of sympathy and respect from rnedical personnel. Anyone who was not in good shape when they went to jail, they said, was in trouble.
Women's Prison Facilities
Because of the small proportion of female prisoners, female facilities are not as well-equipped as male prisons. In Washington, for example, the three men's prisons have six, 12, and 13 vocational programs respectively, while Purdy, the women's prison, teaches clerical skills, sewing, food service, and keypunching. Health care also is inadequate. Pregnant women, for example, do not have access to prenatal education or nutritional diets. Recreational and exercise facilities are extremely limited. The fact that only 11 of 172 managers in Washington's Adult Corrections Division are women may be related to the situation in the state's women's prison.
A problem unique to female prisoners is that many have children and are single parents. When they are sentenced to prison and no one is left at home to keep the family intact, these women often fear that they will lose touch with their children altogether.
Alternatives to Incarceration in Prison
The Women's Community Center in Seattle is one alternative to Purdy for non-violent women offenders who do not have alcohol or drug problems. Twenty-four women and up to eight children can be housed in the facility while the women receive vocational and personal counseling, are introduced to community resources and activities that help facilitate their re-entry into the community and, at the same time, are able to maintain family ties. More programs like this one are needed if female offenders' issues are to be addressed.