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Jail program for women offenders faces the budget ax

Friday, January 19, 2007
by Charles O’Toole

Jacalyn Brown looks nothing like the photo on her Cook County Jail ID, and that's good.
The bruised, sullen woman in the picture, arrested for theft in 2005, stares into the camera with undisguised hostility. Today the 43-year-old mother of two flashes a smile brighter than her gold earrings.
"I was in and out of jail, the penitentary, I was beat up," she said Thursday. "People used to hide when they'd see me. Now I get phone calls to go out and do service work for others."
Brown is one of 283 active members of the Women of Power Alumni Association, an independent non-profit organization of female ex-offenders who are setting their lives straight. They all carry their jail IDs as reminders of how far they have come.
The women credit their transformation to the compassion and support offered through the Cook County Sheriff's Department of Women's Justice Services. The department, founded in 1999, provides services ranging from addiction treatment and pre-natal care, to a furlough program that lets women spend nights with their families and receive counseling during the day.
But now the future of those programs is in jeopardy. In his proposed budget released this week, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger recommended eliminating the department and its $4.1 million in annual appropriations. The cut is part of Stroger's effort to rein in a $500 million county budget deficit without raising taxes.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Sally Daly said the sheriff intends to "make a case [to Stroger] that this program is very important." However, the department's Web site now includes an announcement that "all programs offered" by DWJS "will cease to exist as of March 1, 2007."
Stroger's spokesman Steve Mayberry said that the department, though "laudable," had been identified by the budget committee as one with personnel who could be better used at the jail.
"We all share one common goal," he added, "and that is to protect the taxpayers in this county from higher taxes."
The news has dismayed advocates for women prisoners, who point out that the number of women incarcerated at Cook County Jail has skyrocketed from 8,557 in 1991 to 13,551 last year.
Debbie Ryan, a spokeswoman for the department, said DWJS served nearly 2,200 women in 2006.
"There's a number of initiatives [the department has] been crucial at developing," said Patricia O'Brien, an associate professor at University of Illinois-Chicago who studies female offenders. "They've been good at sensitizing the sheriff's department and correction officers about the unique issues faced by women detainees."
Women of Power members echoed O'Brien, describing a department with a radically different philosophy about corrections.
"In Division 3 and Division 4 [where women are housed at the jail], you get officers who think everyone over there is the scum of the earth," said Marnice Gaston, 30. "They got officers here [at DWJS] who will go and check in on your kids. These officers -- this is a new breed."
The department's initiatives may also have contributed to slower growth in the female prisoner population at Cook County. Since the department's inception, the number of women in the jail has held relatively steady near 15,000 and actually dropped almost 10 percent since 2004. Though O'Brien cautioned that no clear connection has been found between the two events, she added, "I don't think it's so coincidental that there has been some flattening of those numbers."
Lisa Cunningham, Women of Power's president, faced five to 10 years in prison when she was arrested in 2004 for theft. Her photo, too, is a portrait of desperation, light years from the well-dressed, elegant woman she has become.
She was addicted to drugs -- "all of them," she said -- and feared she would lose her three children to social services. Instead she was offered a spot in the department's Female Furlough Program. It enabled her to take care of her family while getting daily supervision.
"I was on Female Furlough for seven months, and they were watching me the whole time," she said. That kind of support gave her the encouragement and discipline to turn her life around, she said.
Cunningham says the women selected for DWJS programming need to meet certain criteria: They have to be non-violent offenders issued an "I-bond" by their sentencing judge, which allows them to be released on their own recognizance while they await a court date. They are then chosen by department staffbased on their willingness to work toward self-improvement.
"We do change through this process," Cunningham said. "We learn to become self-sufficient."
Other members said the examples set by Cunningham and the group's vice president Marian Hatcher, also a recovering addict, have inspired them in their own efforts to stay clean and rejoin society.
But the threat to the department that has nurtured them has the women furious. Cunningham vowed to fight "tooth and nail" to keep the department intact.
Joanne Gillespie, 41, voiced the group's frustration.
"I'm seeing women becoming great moms here--I'm watching it in the furlough program," she said. "We're in corrections, and we're correcting ourselves. And you're going to take that away?"
"That's a crime."
Charles O'Toole is a reporter for the Medill News Service.

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