Senate commission to discuss complex issues surrounding women’s incarceration


STATE HOUSE – The Special Legislation Commission to Study Justice Reinvestment Proposals and Provide Recommendations for Reducing the Incarceration of Women is scheduled to meet Thursday for a discussion about the issues that have come before it so far, and other areas it should explore in its effort to reduce incarceration of women.

The meeting, scheduled Thursday, Jan. 26, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Senate Lounge on the second floor of the State House, will be a discussion among members of the Senate commission. Led by Sen. Meghan E. Kallman, the commission has been meeting since December 2021 to re-examine women’s incarceration as a whole, seeking to address the underlying issues that lead to incarceration and alternative solutions that could better prevent recidivism.

“In studying this issue so far, we’ve learned that the things that are bringing women into incarceration are different from the drivers of the male prison population. Many women are abuse survivors, and women tend to commit crimes that are largely driven by a need to feed their children or because of substance use issues. These are poverty and social service issues, first and foremost. What has become clear over the course of the commission is that most of these situations are not going to be corrected by incarceration. In fact, even though their incarceration is usually brief, it often exacerbates problems. Incarcerations often result in persistent unemployment, lost wages, lost homes and loss of custody of their children to the state. Both the population that is directly affected and our state’s taxpayers would be better served by more effectively targeting the underlying problems with expanded diversion, parole and re-entry programming than by paying the high costs of incarcerating the very small number of female inmates Rhode Island typically has,” said Senator Kallman (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, Providence).

Currently, the Department of Corrections operates a single women’s prison facility in a building that was built as a maximum-security reintegration center for men. This building lacks programming and recreational space, and the level of security is needlessly high. As of January 2021, there were only around 80 women incarcerated there, resulting in an annual cost of approximately $120,000 each, twice as much as the cost for male inmates. The Department of Corrections has proposed closing the facility and sending female inmates out of state.

The commission has been exploring alternatives, both in terms of addressing the underlying issues that result in women’s incarceration, and in other types of facilities that might provide more appropriate opportunities at lower costs. 

Senator Kallman noted that Rhode Island recently opened its first halfway house for women, and that is one positive step toward creating the system she envisions to provide supports rather than to merely incarcerate women.

“The purpose of the rehabilitation system is supposed to be rehabilitation, but in the case of our small population of female offenders who usually pass through the system quickly, there is little opportunity for participation in programs that will have a meaningful impact on the direction of their lives. Instead, most experience all the negative effects like losing their children, their jobs and their homes, without getting enough help with the issues that put them there in the first place,” said Senator Kallman. “Our commission hopes to get the ball rolling in Rhode Island on alternatives that are more constructive, with the goal of providing justice in ways that also serve the higher purpose of helping women address the challenges they face so they are successful members of our community.”