Sunday, March 16, 2008

Many female criminals need therapy, not confinement in prison cells

The Times-Union

As tragic as Maria Viscaya's story is, it could become the story of more women in Northeast Florida.

Viscaya recently described the chain of pathology that led her to jail. The 50-year-old woman, who is serving time for prostitution, told the Times-Union that she began selling her body to support a crack cocaine habit. She turned to crack, she said, because she couldn't stand the pressure of supporting seven children. But maybe the pressure that really got to Viscaya was the pressure that comes from grappling with the pain of being raped and abused. And such abuse is all-too familiar. Those girls are now growing into women like Viscaya; women who now make up a quarter of the city's corrections population. That's more than three times higher than the national average of 7.2 percent. LaWanda Ravoira, who is a past president of PACE Center for Girls Inc., now heads the statewide Justice for Girls initiative. She told me she believes part of the reason that so many women are being incarcerated here has roots in the heavy-handed way that girls are tracked into the juvenile justice system. This is happening, she said, with little consideration of the sexual abuse or emotional problems that cause them to either act out violently or take up self-destructive habits. Ravoira, for example, remembers a 16-year-old girl who was arrested for battery after she hit a family member who had been sexually abusing her for 12 years. That arrest led to more arrests and a series of confinements in a girls' residential facility, she said, but it didn't lead to mental health therapy - which is what the girl needed. Nearly 80 percent of girls who wind up in state juvenile facilities suffer from untreated mental and emotional problems, Ravoira said. And many of those girls end up like Viscaya or the juvenile she once knew - in prison or jail. "I suspect that if you delve into the history of many of these [incarcerated] women, you'll find that many of them are victims [of abuse]," said Ravoira, who co-authored a study on the subject titled "A Rallying Cry for Change: Charting a New Direction in the State of Florida's Response to Girls in the Juvenile Justice System." "Until they become adult women, we don't see the wounds from childhood that is driving them to make irresponsible choices in life." Ravoira said one way to stem the tide of women being imprisoned is to pay closer attention to the girls who are being locked up. That's what her initiative aims to do through advocating programs that take into account the circumstances that put girls on the road to crime. "We have to ask: 'What is it that we can do to build her confidence early in life so that she can find affirmation without resorting to negative behavior?' " Ravoira said. Ravoira is right. Something must be done - at least before some of the theories on the rise of women in prisons become fodder for sexists. One theory says that changing gender roles, with women being reared to be aggressive and assertive like men, is being extended to violent crimes such as robbery and drug dealing. I hope that assertiveness in women doesn't become viewed as a negative trait by associating it with a propensity for them to commit crimes. And I hope that a rise in working women who commit check fraud doesn't lead some sexist to deny a woman more office responsibilities because he believes women can't handle work and independence without stealing; that those tasks are better left to men. Yet while many women handle single motherhood sublimely, for many others, it carries a lot of pressure. Many girls, for example, who began having children as teenagers often become women who continue to look for affirmation in that manner, without giving thought to the financial pressures and emotional burdens that come with rearing children alone. Like Viscaya, many succumb to criminal habits. But also like Viscaya, many are also sexually abused - and that creates a sense of powerlessness over their bodies and their destinies. It's alarming that women are filling prison and jail beds. What's more alarming, however, is that more girls may grow up to join them. Even though we know what to do to stop that from happening. (904) 359-4251. I hope that assertiveness in women doesn't become viewed as a negative trait ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Turn the clocks back 100 years and severly punish all lawbreakers. There was much less crime then and fewer inmates in prisons then. You do the crime, you do the time. This was a great deterrent back then. Quit trying to make excuses for their crimes.There is little control now in the prison system because inmates now have more rights than the officers guarding them. All this teaches the inmates is how to manipulate and use the system on their behalf, reduce their time, and get out and start again where they left off. The old saying "Crime doesn't pay", no longer exists with law violaters. Bleeding hearts need to direct their time and attention to the poverty stricken and help the children before they get into trouble. The vast majority had extensive criminal records before they were finally sentenced. It's time to get tougher on crime and quit making excuses. I am so glad Florida passed the "Castle" bill, allowing homeowners "not to retreat" and to shoot anyone that breaks into their.

"A retired Florida correctional officer."