California's women inmates get fewer visitors than men

California's holding about 160,000 male inmates in prisons across the state. On weekends and holidays, relatives and friends tend to flock to visiting hours at those facilities. But for women inmates, who number roughly 11,000, it's a different story. KPCC's Julie Small visited a women's correctional facility to find out why.

Julie Small: It's 10:30 in the morning at the entrance of the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. A bus lets off a handful of road-weary travelers – among them, 79-year old Elizabeth Broderick of Orange County.

Elizabeth Broderick: This is so far out for anyone to come from Orange County, for certain. And at my age, I wouldn't be able to wend my way here if I had the courage to even attempt it.

Small: Chowchilla is eight hours up Highway 99 from Southern California. To visit a mom or a daughter in prison, families usually spend a night in a hotel. Add in gas and it can cost $400 a visit. Most female inmates in California are here, or at Valley State Prison nearby.

Last year, the state hired a bus &ndas;h the Chowchilla Express – that drives visitors to the prisons for free on Sundays. Elizabeth Broderick left at 4 in the morning and won't get back until 10 at night. Still, she wouldn't skip a chance to see her "Megan."

Broderick: Yeah. I'm her mom and her grandma. Her mom passed away when she was only 22 months. So I've really brought her up myself. And it's important. I'm her connection to everything.

Small: Everything that was Megan Broderick's life before she tried to smuggle drugs into a prison.

Broderick: Y'know, I've done what I can for her. She went to Catholic grade school and high school, and had a good job, and just got with the wrong people and forfeited all of that. All the goodness is gone. We got to start from square one again.

Prison guard (conducting a security check): Step back for me. A little bit more.

Small: Broderick presents her driver's license and a doctor's note about pins in her hips that can set off the metal detector.

Prison guard: Do you have any front pockets. No? Go ahead and turn around for me. OK, initial here. Thank you. Go ahead and go over to the metal detector.

Small: A guard in the visiting room assigns Broderick to a table.

Guard: You'll be at table number 2.

Small: Only half the tables fill up. Before the state started the bus service, hardly any visitors came by. At a men's prison, visiting rooms are filled with girlfriends, wives, and children.

Wendy Stills headed up the women's division of the Department of Corrections before going to work for the federal receiver in charge of improving inmate medical care. Stills says women prisoners get a quarter of the visitors that male inmates get.

Wendy Stills: I think by the time women get to prison their families have pretty much been frustrated with them, as well as their children. They've lost their children, many of them, to the CPS system.

Small: A female inmate's children often end up in foster homes.

Stills: And their significant others leave them. Versus what you see in a male institution is that the families continue to support them and the women tend to stay with them. So it creates a real different visiting dynamic.

Small: Because men have more visitors, they have more help when they get out. Corrections wants nonviolent female inmates to serve their sentences closer to family to help them stay out of trouble when their time is up. But the bigger cities don't have much prison space. So the women are here – far away from family.

Broderick: There's my Megan!

Small: Megan Broderick is 26, fair-skinned with long golden brown hair.

Megan Broderick: How was your drive?
Elizabeth Broderick: Good. It seemed longer to me this time for whatever reason.

Small: Elizabeth Broderick's agreed to take in Megan when she gets out, but worries her granddaughter will fall back with the wrong crowd. Megan says she'll do what it takes to get her life back.

Megan Broderick: It's only my second time ever in custody. And it's been scary and new. But I've learned a lot from it, and hopefully I'll never come back.

Small: Megan's grandmother taps the table.

Megan Broderick: Yeah, knock on wood – you can never say never, but I can do everything in my power to stay out.

Small: Megan cherishes her grandmother's visits.

Megan Broderick: It's just so much positive reinforcement when you see your family. You just go back feeling loved, walking on air. It's hard to watch her leave and you have to stay. But at the same time, I know I am going home to her one day and she still has my back. She's still on my side.

Small: And Elizabeth Broderick will be here again – at Megan's side – in a few more Sundays.