Crime & Justice

California prisons ready to expand home detention program for women inmates

An inmate at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla speaks to advisors during the process of applying for early release through a new program meant to reduce crowding.
An inmate at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla speaks to advisors during the process of applying for early release through a new program meant to reduce crowding.
Julie Small/KPCC

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Tuesday was a benchmark day for California prisons. A federal court order requires the state to reduce its prison population by 10,000 inmates. The first progress report is due today.

Most of the 10,000 were low-level offenders shifted to California counties. But a small number were the result of a new law that allows some women inmates serve the last two years of their sentences under home detention. Only 20 women are in the program now, but the state is aiming to expand that quickly.

At Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, a handful of low-level offenders will be spending the final years of their sentences at home.

Twenty-three year-old Crystal Farfan is serving a two-year sentence for stealing cars. She did the first nine months at Valley State Prison for Women. She’ll do the rest at her mom’s home in Los Angeles, where she’ll reunite with her son and daughter. Crystal has to take parenting classes, go to school or get a job, stay in at night and get drug treatment. She says her “co-defendant” - her ex-boyfriend - encouraged her addiction. He’s in prison, too.

"My daughter’s dad was 17 years older than me and he used to beat me up and had me drugged up pretty good," says Farfan. "And I feel like this experience, coming to prison has really changed me. I’m really grateful for this ACP program, you know, because I think I’d go crazy if I had to stay here a little bit longer. "

Different Gateways, Alternative Exits

California’s Alternative Custody Program (ACP) allows women convicted of non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual offenses to serve the last two years of their sentences at home. Parole agents use GPS monitoring devices to keep track of where they are.

Velda Dobson-Davis, the Chief Deputy Warden at Valley State Prison for Women, helped develop the Alternative Custody Program. She rallied a crowd at the prison gymnasium earlier this month to get more women to apply for the program.

"This is for persons to do their time. To do their time. Y’all hearing me?" she told her audience. "To do your time. So that means you’re still doing your what?"

"Time," her crowd responds.

"So we’re not getting out of prison early," she said. This is a virtual prison in your residence"

Dobson-Davis thinks alternative custody will help many of the women who end up at Valley State.

"Women in the criminal realm tend to be the follower. Their gateway to crime is different. It is usually by association," she says. "We have righteous convicts. Don’t let me confuse you at all. We have persons that truly are what a prison is designed to incarcerate. But we also have what we would call before 109 'churners'."

Many of those women offenders aren’t violent, but tend to “churn” in and out of prison "due to drug addiction, due to instabilities in their life, prior abuse, neglects, abandonment issues, poverty, no place to go to," she says. "[They come] back to prison every 43 days. They’d go get high and they’d be back in prison."

Alternative custody, she believes, gives those women a road map to deal with their issues, "and support while they work on those issues and monitoring as they work on those issues," she adds. "I just have to believe that will be a more successful person."

Crystal Farfan says it’s a chance she won’t squander.

"I’m grateful and I’m excited to see what kind of life I have waiting for me out there. I’m ready to change my whole life around," she says.

A Last Chance, For Some

Last week, Farfan became the first inmate to leave Valley State Prison for Women and enter the Alternative Custody Program.

"I’ve learned the value of having my family. This is my last chance," she says. "My mom’s told me plenty of times being here that she’s done. She’s really done with me. I’ve put her through so much. So I’ve learned a lot coming here. It’s not a place I’d every want to come back to."

The Department of Corrections estimates that about half of California’s female prison population – about 5,000 women - meets the basic criteria for alternative custody, but only 20 women will get out this year.

Next year, Corrections will expand the program. But even then, they expect only 500 women – about a quarter of the number that might qualify – will actually find their way into the program.