California’s prison population has dropped by more than 8,000 inmates since October, when the state began shifting low-level criminals from state prisons to county jails. The state's prisons are under a federal court order to cut the inmate population by another 25,000 inmates by mid-2013. One way to do it is to assign more female inmates to do their time outside of prison.
Jessica Carrillo says she hopes to get out a month early from Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. The 19-year-old from Merced County got sent to state prison for 10 months after she violated parole on a juvenile offense of grand theft auto. Carrillo is confident that she meets the criteria for alternative custody. Her crime wasn’t a serious, violent or sexual offense and she’s the breadwinner for her family - or will be. Carrillo is eight months pregnant.
"I would get out right around my due date – January 31st," she said. "So right now, my release date’s February 10th - about a month early."
Under alternative custody, female inmates can serve time outside of prison – either with relatives or friends. They can work or go to school.
Parole officers use GPS monitors to keep track of them. Fifty-eight-year-old Cristina Vignon of Tehama County got two years for selling marijuana. She could get out of prison early under the state’s Alternative Custody Program.
"I need to get home to take care of my 90 year-old mother," said Vignon. "She’s living at home and my boyfriend’s taking care of her for nothing."
A Lengthy Process, By Design
This year, 20 female inmates qualified for alternative custody in California. Next year, prison officials want to increase that to 500. But the Department of Corrections estimates that about 5,000 women - half the female inmates in California prisons - could be eligible for alternative custody.
Velda Dobson-Davis, the Chief Deputy Warden at Valley State Prison for Women helped create the Alternative Custody Program and says part of the bottleneck is vetting candidates.
"The application is lengthy by design," she said. "Because what we’re doing is making a decision to release someone early because the community assumes that they’re in prison serving their time and we’re making a decision that this person could be better served in a residence in that same community that just sentenced them to prison."
An inmate first meets with the correctional counselor assigned to her yard. Don Jennis, the counselor for the C yard at Valley State Women’s Prison in Chowchilla, says there's a long list of things that might exclude candidates from being released.
"We don’t want anybody out in the community that’s gonna hurt anybody," said Jennis "And so if they can’t live next door to me, I don’t want ‘em to go out."
Inmates have to “go out” on their own dime.
Social worker Kathie Moon says women without support at home can look for nonprofit agencies to sponsor them. That can be tricky – but Moon says inmates are resourceful - especially the ones with kids.
"You have to have somebody who will not only let you live there but kind of support you ‘til you get a job, etcetera," said Moon. "Getting out two years early is two years in that child’s life that you’re gonna be there. Many of the women who are applying, that’s their motivation."
Leiloni Ancheta has been approved to live with her son at her parents’ house. A month before her little boy’s second birthday, Leiloni was arrested for grand theft. She’s currently serving a two-year sentence at Valley State Women’s Prison.
"You’re here for a reason. Nobody here is innocent, nobody. I don’t care what they say," said Anchetta. "Getting a second chance to go home, though - there’s also a reason for that too. Maybe you’ve learned your lesson. Hopefully you did, but the second chance doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t."
Every woman released under the state’s Alternative Custody Program meets with a parole agent at her home and at her job, if she has one. If she’s a drug addict, she submits to regular drug tests. The Department of Corrections can also require treatment for addiction.
Leiloni wants that. She wasn’t convicted of a drug crime, but she says her meth habit trips her up. She’s been in prison six times, but never qualified for funding to enter a drug rehab program on the outside. Under the Alternative Custody Program, Leiloni will get that help.
"So with them giving me a second chance, they’re also giving me a second chance at not only just freedom, but for a whole new life. So I’m grasping this with my fullest," said Anchetta.
If the Department of Corrections can keep 500 women inmates on alternative custody next year, it’ll save $6 million. Prison officials say they might expand alternative custody to include male inmates. It depends on whether the program succeeds in keeping female inmates out of trouble.