By Silja JA Talvi
Three years ago, I journeyed back to Santa Fe to return to a city where I had once lived—and that always seemed to call me back.
I headed out from Seattle with a snowboard for the freshly blanketed mountains, as well as an insatiable appetite for the food I could not find in the Pacific Northwest. But most of all, I traveled back because the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility had agreed to let me come and spend a day in the state’s only women’s prison in Grants.
I was eager for the experience, not just because much of my work in journalism had centered on criminal justice and prisons, but also because my editor at the Santa Fe Reporter, Julia Goldberg, had given me the kind of assignment that investigative reporters like myself treasure the most: Just go out there and see what you find.
Owned and operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), now the nation’s biggest private prison company, New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility (NMWCF) opened its doors in 1989 as the first privatized female prison in the country. From the beginning, the facility locked up women from all classification levels—from drug possession to murder and everything in between—and from all parts of the state, no matter how distant.
Even back in 1989, the strategy of locking up women far from their communities of origin—to an isolated rural town inaccessible by public transit—should have been seen as a problem. NMWCF’s original population consisted of 149 women. Today, roughly 650 female prisoners at Grants are estimated to have 1,800 dependent children, many of whom don’t see their mothers for years on end and who sometimes end up in foster care.
It also should have been recognized, without too much intellectual effort, that a 28-year-old homeless heroin addict serving time for street prostitution would have very different psychological, medical and counseling needs than a 56-year-old woman who shot her chronic alcoholic husband—a man who took to using his fists once he got drunk enough.
But this was almost 20 years ago, and “gender-responsive incarceration” wasn’t yet the burgeoning buzzword it is today. Back then, inmates were unlikely to receive anything akin to effective drug treatment in a women’s prison, much less a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder or counseling for major depression. (Both are common among women in prison.)
As for the trauma of being so far removed from one’s community and family, back then, the attitude toward “criminals” wasn’t much different from what it is now: If someone in authority has put you behind bars, well, then, you deserve the sentence you got, you deserve to go to the place you’re sent and you even deserve the unpleasant things that might happen to you while you’re there.
So it goes with women and men in prisons across the US, and so it went during my tour of New Mexico’s women’s prison. Nonetheless, there were surprises.