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The County Board of Supervisors should know putting tens of millions of dollars into converting an unused Immigration Detention Center in the High Desert into a women’s jail stacks the deck against women and families struggling to overcome substantial barriers. Mira Loma is about as far north as you can get in Los Angeles County, out of sight on the distant county desert line.

mira loma womens jail

Healing at Home, Not Detained in the Desert—Susan Burton

Most of the women who would be incarcerated in the new facility have roots in communities much farther south. Many families have transportation challenges. A trip to Mira Loma from, say Lynwood or East Los Angeles, is a four-hour trek by bus and train. That’s four hours each way – the entire day – for a possible 20- or 30-minute visit.

Prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community, with each visit considerably reducing the risk of recidivism.

Barriers to family ties may be punishing, but clearly they do not work. Studies prove the opposite. When family relationships are maintained people are less likely to be locked up again. Prison visitation can significantly improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community, with each visit considerably reducing the risk of recidivism. Studies further show more frequent and recent visits reduced the risk of recidivism. The more sources of social support an offender has, the lower the risk of going back to jail.

Back in the 1980s Mira Loma was operational. I did not want to go there because that would have meant I couldn’t see my family. Fortunately, I did not go there. I was in county jail for a low-level drug offense. Women locked up so far away are much less likely to get family visits, and such visits are essential for the health and well-being of children and families.

Beyond placing a women’s jail in the far reaches of the county, a more serious problem is the county increasing beds while focusing on the symptoms rather than core reasons for incarceration, such as mental health and poverty. That is the same approach the state took, resulting in prisons bursting at the seams and a federal court order to reduce the inmate population due to deplorable conditions. We can do much better than jailing hundreds of women convicted of low-level and non-violent offenses.

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My odyssey through county jails and California prisons began 30 years ago after a Los Angeles Police officer ran over and killed my 5-year-old son. The patrol car’s flashing lights were not on—yet it was deemed an accident. The LAPD never acknowledged or apologized. I was in a haze. I came back from the funeral and began to drink. Attempts to further numb my grief sadly led to the use of crack, like far too many in the African-America community saturated with that poison in those days. I don’t know if the officer got professionally relieved of duties with paid time off, counseling or both. I know I got nothing.

I was sentenced as a non-violent drug offender. When I was released from prison, I returned to the community without any support. Finally and fortunately, someone told me about the Clare Foundation’s treatment facility in Santa Monica. I was lucky enough to get a bed there. I was supplied with kindness, housing and the tools to make my recovery. After just 100 days of treatment, my life was transformed. I have lived a life of sobriety and productivity ever since.

Had I had access to community services early on, I would never have resorted to drugs. Women like me were swept up in the so-called “War on Drugs” in huge numbers. Very often, the drug use was compounded by mental health issues. This inspired me to establish A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project in 1998. Hundreds of women have successfully come through our program.

Our approach is much different than policing, imprisonment and separation. We inspire and motivate people to dream instead of punishing them, and the county would do well to put more resources into alternatives to incarceration and family detachment. So many women languishing in jail could be contributing members of society. This requires bringing them home, not detaining them in the desert of despair.

Mira Loma is a hidden hold-over, a relic to the old thinking, an artifact in the sand reminding us of what never worked. Let us invest in people, not prisons. The outcomes are healthier all around. Let’s bring the women home – instead of separating them from loved ones, behind bars, to the far boundaries of the county as if they don't exist. Alternatives work ... believe me. I am living proof, and I see the healing results every day.


Susan Burton
A New Way of Live