Women Beyond Bars: A Post-Prison Interview with Jennifer Claypool and Wendy Staggs
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Women Beyond Bars: A Post-Prison Interview with Jennifer Claypool and Wendy Staggs


Jennifer Claypool and Wendy Staggs are inspiring artists, college students, and mothers.  They are also returning citizens.  Coming home from prison just months apart in 2017, we met and began working together while they were incarcerated at the oldest women’s prison in the state: the California Institution for Women (CIW), [1] a prison reported to have a suicide rate five times the state average and eight times the national average.[2]

Women are the fastest growing population behind bars in the United States.  Between 1970 and 2015, the number of women behind bars grew from under 8000 to almost 110,000—a fourteen-fold increase primarily for drug related crimes.[3] In 2015, I joined the faculty of the UCLA and worked with incarcerated and university students, faculty, staff, and a dozen community partner organizations, to launch the UCLA Prison Education Program.  By the following spring, I taught the university’s first pilot course at CIW.

This interview focuses on the experiences of two women I met while teaching at CIW during the first year of the Prison Education Program.  Jennifer, Wendy, and I worked together with a group of visionary, incarcerated women to develop the CIW Think Tank—a committee of women at the prison committed to guiding UCLA in the development of educational opportunities.[4]

At least 95 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons in the United States will return to society.[5] Evidence overwhelmingly suggests education is a leading factor keeping those who come home from prison from ever returning to the inside of a cell.[6]

[1].        The current facility was built in 1952 with 1,398 beds.  Today, it incarcerates over 1,800 women.  Division of Internal Oversight and Research & Office of Research, Weekly Report of Population as of Midnight October 10, 2018, Cal. Dep’t of Corrections & Rehabilitation, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/Offender_Information_Services_Branch/WeeklyWed/TPOP1A/TPOP1Ad181010.pdf [https://perma.cc/BT6X-84EE]; Don Chaddock, Unlocking History: Original Tehachapi Women’s Prison was Novel in Approach, Inside CDCR (Feb. 13, 2015), https://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2015/02/unlocking-history-ciw-tehachapi.

[2].        Hillel Aron, Why Are So Many Inmates Attempting Suicide at the California Institution for Women?, L.A. Weekly (July 20, 2016, 8:08 AM), http://www.laweekly.com/news/why-are-so-many-inmates-attempting-suicide-at-the-california-institution-for-women-7156615.

[3].        Elizabeth Swavola, et al., Vera Inst. of Justice & Safety & Justice Challenge, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform 6 (2016), https://storage.googleapis.com/vera-web-assets/downloads/Publications/overlooked-women-and-jails-report/legacy_downloads/overlooked-women-and-jails-report-updated.pdf; TRT World, Route 66: Who Is benefitting from California’s Cannabis ‘Green Rush’?, YouTube (Mar. 6, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBPCrSV9jp4&sns=em.

[4].        See Appendix B, infra, for information on a project by the CIW Think Tank.

[5].        Timothy Hughes & Doris James Wilson, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Reentry Trends in the U.S. (2018), https://www.bjs.gov/content/reentry/reentry.cfm [https://perma.cc/D3T8-F39K].

[6].        Debbie Mukamal et. al., Stanford Criminal Justice Ctr. & Chief Justice Earl Warren Inst. on Law & Soc. Policy, Degrees of Freedom: Expanding College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians 1 (2015), https://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/DegreesofFreedom2015_FullReport.pdf.

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