DANBURY — Following an outcry over a plan to move more than 1,300 female prisoners from the only women’s lockup in the Northeast, the Bureau of Prisons now plans to return 400 women to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury.
But they won’t come back until an 18-month construction period that will transform the existing facility into a mostly male prison for nearly 1,000 men and build a new prison for women. The work is expected to cost $8 million to $10 million.
U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, in a conference call with reporters late Monday afternoon, said that they have been assured that minimum and low-security women prisoners from the Northeast will be housed in the prison and a satellite camp. About 200 low-security inmates will stay in the camp near the men’s facility and another 200 in a new minimum-security building on Pembroke Road next to the main prison.
Until then, the women will be transferred wherever there is room in the system, including 100 regional prisoners who will be housed in a Brooklyn, N.Y. facility.
A new detention facility in Alabama may take a majority of the women and keep those who are not from the Northeast for the balance of their sentences.
“Every woman from the Northeast will have a bed,” Blumenthal said, adding that if there is room, non-U.S. citizens may also be housed there.
“Being sentenced to federal prison is punishment enough,” Murphy said. “These women shouldn’t be punished again by being removed from their families. These women clearly did something wrong. But their kids didn’t. Their families didn’t.”
In July the Bureau of Prisons announced the plans to turn the prison into an all-male low-security prison to ease overcrowding in the federal prison system. The proposed change prompted outcry over the bureau’s plans to transfer many of the prison’s inmates to a new facility in Aliceville, Ala., and put more than a thousand miles between some inmates from the Northeast and their families.
Last month, 12 chief judges from federal court districts throughout the Northeast wrote a letter to Attorney General William Holder urging him to reconsider the plan, citing the emotional impact of separating mothers and their children. The Judges noted that 59 percent of the women housed in FCI Danbury had children under the age of 21.
“That’s wonderful news,” said Beatrice Codianni, who completed a 15-year sentence on a racketeering charge at the prison and its satellite camp in 2008. “It’s very difficult to be separated from your family for a mistake you made but to further penalize a woman by sending her 1,000 miles away, it is very, very heartbreaking.”
Piper Kerman, the author of “Orange is the New Black,” a memoir about her experiences during her 13-month stint at FCI Danbury, which Netflix turned into a hit series, questioned if the fraction of prison beds could accommodate those Northeast women already in the system, as well as those who will inevitably enter in the future.
“Unless the BOP knows that suddenly we’re going to start incarcerating far, far fewer women — which would be great — you know, that’s a huge drop in the ability of the Bureau of Prisons to appropriately house women who come form the Northeast,” she said.
Barbara Fair, a New Haven community activist, had been outspoken against the proposed change.
“I’m just pleased we had a lot of support on this,” Fair said on Monday. “We just want families to be close to their homes. I’m just happy that they’re reconsidering the impact on children and families members. That’s all it was about for us.”
Codianni spoke of the benefit her proximity to her family in New Haven had during her incarceration in Danbury, which began when one of her sons was 16 years old.
“He dropped out of school but then I talked to him and convinced him to get back in school,” she said.
The other communication options — letters and phone calls — hardly measured up to the experience of face-to-face reunions.
“Just to be able to sit there … just physically seeing family, you actually feel close to them,” she said.
Codianni, a one-time gang leader who now serves as managing editor of Reentry Central, a website dedicated to news of inmates reentering society, also pointed out the susceptibility of young teens to fall in with gangs when they lose their connection to their mother.
“That’s why most kids join because it gives them a sense of family but it’s not, and you’re either going to go to prison or you’re going to get killed,” she said.