Paris Can Make a Difference Behind Bars

Human Rights

In a collect call to ABC's Barbara Walters from the Los Angeles County Jail a solemn and pensive Paris Hilton claimed that she's no longer a bimbo, and that she wants to make a difference in people's lives. The credit for her sudden stunning activist epiphany must go to the coalition of Los Angeles civil rights leaders who publicly challenged Hilton to be an advocate for prisoner rights two days before she called Walters.

There are certainly plenty of candidates for her to help at the jail. Unlike her, they are nameless, and faceless, mostly poor, and minority. But like her, many of them are female. Hilton is discovering from her ordeal that tens of thousands of women are doing time, many of them hard time, behind bars in America's jails and prisons.

According to a Justice Department report in 2004 on America's jail population, women make up about 10 percent of America's inmates. There are more women than ever serving time.

The government is expanding the women's prison-industrial complex. From 1930 to 1950 five women's prisons were built nationally. During the 1980s and 1990s dozens more prisons were built, and a growing number of them are maximum-security women's prisons. But the prison-building splurge hasn't kept pace with the swelling number of women prisoners. Women's prisons are understaffed, overcrowded, lack recreation facilities, and serve poor quality food. They suffer chronic shortages of family planning counselors and services, gynecological specialists, drug treatment and child care facilities, and transportation funds for family visits.

More women are behind bars as much because of a tough public mood toward punishment as for their actual crimes. One out of three crimes committed by women is drug related. Many state and federal sentencing laws mandate minimum sentences for all drug offenders. This virtually eliminates the option of referring non-violent first time offenders to increasingly scarce, financially strapped drug treatment, counseling and education programs. Stiffer punishment for crack cocaine use also has landed more black women in prison, and for longer sentences than white women.

Then there's the feminization of poverty and racial stereotyping. One out of three black women jailed did not complete high school, was unemployed, or had incomes below the poverty level at the time of her arrest. More than half of them were single parents.

The quantum leap in women behind bars has had a devastating impact on families and the quality of life in many communities. Thousands of children of incarcerated women are raised by grandparents, or warehoused in foster homes and institutions. The children are frequently denied visits because the mothers are deemed unfit. This prevents mothers from developing parenting and nurturing skills and badly harms the parent-child bond. Many children of imprisoned women drift into delinquency, gangs and drug use. This perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty, crime and violence. There are many cases where parents and even grandparents are jailed.

There is little sign that this will change. Much of the public and politicians are deeply trapped in the damaging cycle of myths, misconceptions and panic about crime-on-the-loose women. They are loath to increase funds and programs for job and skills training, drug treatment, education, childcare and health, and parenting skills.

If Hilton became a social advocate it wouldn't be unique. Her counterpart, Martha Stewart had her own epiphany after a stint in a prison in Alderson, West Virginia in 2005. Stewart's daily shoulder-rub with other women prisoners opened her eyes wide to the gaping iniquities in the criminal justice system. She called for reforms in sentencing and a drastic improvement in the programs and services to help women and first time offenders rebuild their lives.

When a glamorous figure such as Stewart demands prison reform it makes news. And at least for a fleeting moment gets the attention of a yawning public to the plight of women prisoners.

Hilton's party going, paparazzi driven, media voyeuristic world of fortune was even more light years removed from the grim world of the many poor women. But, like Stewart, that world came crashing down with her jailing, and the public disgust and rage at her for trying to worm out of punishment. Her epiphany won't totally dab away the heavy layer of taint on her image.

But if Hilton can turn some of her celebrity limelight, as Stewart did, on the thousands of poor, needy females in America's jails it will be a mild boost for the prison reform battle. Then, and only then, can she really say that she made a difference.

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