QUOTE: “I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, And time keeps draggin’ on…”
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— Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
For the first time in nearly 90 years Folsom Prison has a female inmate population. The women moved into the new Folsom Women’s Facility in January.
More than 151 female inmates have been transferred to FWF, with more arriving every week. Prison officials expect to be at capacity of 403 by late summer. The women came from the California Institute for Women in Corona and the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
The facility is adjacent to, but entirely separate from, the men’s prison.
“There is absolutely no co-mingling between male and female inmates,” said Lt. Stephen Zanini, the prison’s public information officer.
The FWF site was constructed in 1990 and had been a drug rehabilitation facility for parolees and level 1 inmates (on a scale of 1 to 4 with 4 being the most violent criminals) as recently as 2009 when budget cuts shut its doors. When the need arose for 400 additional beds for California’s female inmates, the state’s 33 prisons were canvassed and Folsom was chosen for its unoccupied facility.
Because of the building’s minimum to medium level security, the inmates chosen for transfer to FWF had to meet strict criteria. “They must be a level 1, 2, or 3 offender, with five years or less to serve. They must also be discipline free for at least the past year,” said Zanini. “We are starting from scratch and need a work force to help build FWF, so we can’t have any behavior issues.”
The women seem mostly happy with the move. Alicia, 63, arrived from CCWF in Chowchilla two weeks ago. With tears in her eyes she repeated, “I’m very thankful to whoever decided to do this.” She described her six years at Chowchilla, where she was often afraid for her safety, as crowded and chaotic. “Because everyone was asked to come here for having good behavior, there have been no problems,” she said. “And the staff and COs (corrections officers) are all so approachable.” Alicia is also grateful to be closer to her elderly parents, who live in Roseville.
Dorm B in FWF, comprised of three large rooms that share a common courtyard, is where the inmates will finish their prison sentences. Maximum occupancy is 202. The inmates work with prison officials to ready Block A for the next phase of 201 inmates. Each of the three open rooms has a television, laundry facilities, exercise equipment and individual lockers for personal belongings on the ground floor. The second level is an open dormitory with dozens of single beds, visible from the ground below. Unlike the men’s prison, female inmates are free to wander between the yard and their dorm room as they wish. And, except for “chow” time, their dress code is much looser than the men’s, for whom the CDCR prison uniform is standard.
While Alicia doesn’t have a paying job (only inmates who have at least a GED may earn $19 to $120 per month at various jobs; others must go to school), she has chosen to volunteer her time by replenishing supplies like soap and toilet paper, and she makes the orientation kits for new arrivals.
Risha, 34, came on the first bus from the women’s prison in Corona. While she said the staff is nice, she is eager for more programs to help pass the two years she has left to serve. It may have been more crowded in Corona, but I used to make $56 per month as a cosmetologist,” she said, adding that she hopes to help build Folsom’s cosmetology program. “I want to feel productive again.”
Passing the time will also lessen Risha’s heartache at being so far away from her two sons, ages 3 and 15, and her boyfriend. “They used to visit me every weekend,” she said.
Hayley, 29, has only 90 days left of her three-year sentence for drugs and robbery. She said she’s happy with programs like book club and a volleyball league that have already been set up at FWF. Hayley wakes each day at 3:30 a.m. to work at her kitchen job, grateful for the money she earns to buy things at the canteen, saying her job is an incentive to not get into trouble since the privilege of a good paying job can be revoked at any time.
As Hayley looks beyond prison, toward the life she’ll soon need to rebuild once on the outside, she echoed comments made by all the women interviewed, saying, “Prison pretty much saved my life.”