Women Behind Bars

By: Nicole Garcia

Chowchilla - The Central Valley is home to more than 8,000 female prisoners, and like most prisons throughout the state, they're overcrowded as more and more women become incarcerated.

One of the Valley's most notorious murderesses - Larissa Schuster - will spend the rest of her life behind bars, at Valley State Prison for Women, in Chowchilla.

More than 4,000 women call the prison home.They're there for everything from stealing, to murder.{} All grouped into general population.

"Female inmates are not separated based on their custody level...level one housed in the same cell in level four," said Lt. James Neeley, public information officer with Valley State Prison for Women.

The majority of female inmates though - about 66-%- are incarcerated for nonviolent drug or property crimes.

But a small percentage of inmates are convicted of some of the most heinous crimes.

59 women at VSPW, including Larissa Schuster, will never set foot outside the fence, for as long they live. 59 women are serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

But for the most part, life inside the prison, is calm and orderly.

"There's a lot less tension... the likelihood for violence, just isn't there as much," said Lt. Neeley.

When KMPH{}toured the grounds of the prison, we were never bothered or hassled by any of the women, who walked the grounds without physical restraints.

There are four separate housing units at the prison.

Each have a day room, where inmates can watch TV and socialize.

The prison is so overcrowded, bunk beds are arranged in the day room and some have to sleep in the common area.

But most share a cell block.Eight women are packed into a 16 feet by 16 feet room.

The view from the window; a barbed wire fence.

Inmates are assigned a locker, and they can buy personal TV's - specific brands are approved by the state. They sleep on metal bunk beds with thin mattresses. White sheets and towels are provided for them.

In each cell, there are two sinks, a toilet, and a shower.

Unlike in male prisons, women tend to form bonds under these conditions.

"Females create like a little family unit... the ones who've been here longer, take some of the other inmates under their wing, show them how to do time so to speak," explained Lt. Neeley.

The other big difference between male and female prisons: how the staff interacts with the women.

"The primary thing I think is the communication between the staff and females, you have to be a really good communicator.{} Where a male inmate is more likely to accept a no answer, a female inmate will more likely ask why," said Lt. Neeley.

Every day, inmates are assigned job, they clean, maintain the grounds, and make meals.

Some inmates have the opportunity to learn. Every year, about 150 women earn their high school diploma or GED behind bars.

Some even learn new trades. There's a cosmetology school on the premises, where certain inmates can study and even practice giving each other manicures, perms, haircuts, and even pedicures.{}Women can also learn office and mechanical skills.

They can also earn money by working.{}Some inmates help make prescription eyeglasses on site.

"47% of female inmates are going to recidivate within a 3 year period.{} But what we found is that could be halved for those inmates who obtain a GED or high school diploma, for those that get a college degree it's cut yet again to 10%," said Martin Connolly, the acting principal at Valley State Adult Program.

But for more than 400 women at this prison, there is no second chance at a normal life.

439 inmates at Valley State Prison for Women are lifers, sentenced to be removed from society, with no hope, for rehabilitation.

Women only make up about 2% of those sentenced to life in prison in California.There are currently nearly 23,000 inmates in the state, sentenced to live out the rest of their lives, behind bars.