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Mothers in Prison Interview - Dina Tyler

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I think, to a large degree, many people take the image that they've seen of corrections and of prisons from the movie screen and take it to heart and think that's the way it is and I think that many times everybody thinks that if someone commits a crime and they're sentenced to incarceration, that while they're here they should be absolutely miserable, that we should punish them every day. That's not our job to punish. The punishment is being sent here. Our job is to maintain the safety and good order of the institutions to make sure that everybody who's supposed to be here is here, to keep everybody safe and to provide something for them to be a little different. If we don't do that, if we don't try, they're just coming back. All of them are coming back and we've already seen our population nearly double each of the last three decades and the growth rate of the female population is far out-pacing that of the male population. That means that we have to do stuff in here and sometimes it may be innovative programs. It may be new programs. It may be revamping programs we already have but we've got to do things to try and stem that tide from our end. And the other side of the coin is, in a community things have to be done to try and stem the tide from that end so that they don't come here because if we continue, if the State of Arkansas continues at the present growth rate, there is not enough money in our budget to keep up with the rate of crime. We can't build our way out of this. There is no way Arkansas or any state can afford that.

I think that they, the differences between men and women incarcerated are as obvious as the difference out on the street. They are truly two very distinct populations. The male population tends to be much more violent and much more prone to outburst than the female population but on the other side, the female population is usually more manipulative and also comes carrying a lot more baggage that they bring from the house with the family issues. Some of the females come in to the institutions and they're pregnant, which means that often times their baby is going to be born while they're incarcerated, and so there are medical issues with that. There's prenatal care. There's the delivery and then after that there is a social worker that has to be involved with making sure that that child, which has been born, has a place to go. Plus many of these women have children on the outside and a lot of them were active mothers, at least as active as they could be at that point, and they still want to be involved in their children's lives. Unfortunately on the male side you don't always see that. A lot of times the males may have children but they may have been absent fathers and often times that doesn't change when they're incarcerated but with the females, if you're a mom on the outside, when you get here you're still a mom and often times you are trying very much to be a better mom.

We know that so much of crime today is tied to substance abuse. I've seen national studies that put the figure at 80 to 85% of all crime, in one way or another, can be tied back to a drug or an alcohol problem. Those numbers are staggering, which means you've got to have some sort of substance abuse treatment to try and get to the root of the problem. You can't take somebody and sentence them to five, ten, 15, 20 years, whatever it is, put them here and not offer them any programs to try and change themselves and expect them to be different when they go out. It's just not going to happen. 90% of our offenders are coming home. They're going back to the communities. They're going to your town. They're going to my town. They're going to be in the neighborhoods. They're coming home and they need to be a better product when they get there. So, you have got to offer them something. Substance abuse is a huge part of what we do. We have a 30-day program. We have a 60-day program for parole violators. We have a nine-month program for those cases that need more time. We already know that 30 days isn't enough. It needs to be longer in many cases. For some, 30 days might work, for many it won't. So, we know that program has to be longer. We're working on that but doing programs doesn't come for free. You know, we've got to have the money to do that and that's always a challenge in corrections. I think that the Arkansas Department of Correction is head and shoulders above a lot of departments of corrections because we are trying things. We're not content with the status quo and everybody certainly knows that what this department was 30 or 40 years ago in no way resembles what it is today. There was a time when Arkansas Department of Correction was among the worst correction agencies in the country. It was to the point that the whole thing was unconstitutional. Now, Arkansas is one of only nine states that is fully accredited. That is quite a turn-around. You're talking 180 degrees in not that long of a time. So, I think that says a lot about the commitment of the department, the legislature, the governors we've had and the public to fund it because at some point everybody got together and said, "We don't want to be like that. We want to be different. We want to be better." And I think the department does a real good job. And understand it is not an easy job. In no way is it an easy job and I don't think that you could ever be in corrections and make everybody happy because there's always going to be two very divided factions of the public. One that thinks you don't do enough for the inmates and the other that thinks you do way too much and often times which side of the fence they're on is directly related to whether they're related to an inmate or to a crime victim.

I think my hope, as a human being and as a tax payer, is that the message provided here are taken to heart and help a person to vest and used when they get out on the outside, because there are some wonderful opportunities inside here and let's face it, an inmate can come in here without a high school education, never having worked a job, no job skills, a substance problem and leave here with a high school education, having been treated for their substance abuse problem. They can have a certificate for vo-tech and they can even have attended college. So, the buffet of opportunities is here but it's up to the inmate to come stand in line and take advantage of what's there.

For the whole department of correction, the recidivism rate is 38% after three years, which is right around the national average. It's higher than everybody would like it to be but I think it's probably just about where everybody else is. I think at any given time you can go in to the back of an institution and probably 60% of the population will have been here before. You have women taking part in the parenting class who are doing their very best in class and this isn't their first ride in the rodeo. They've been here before and unfortunately some of them, too many of them, will be back again. Our hope is that they go and have a good life filled with good things and they work hard. They have good relationships and everything goes well and they use the skills that they've learned in here and that maybe we've helped contribute to their success. That is our dream scenario. That's what we want to happen. When you leave the gate we don't ever want to see you again ever. Unfortunately, we see many of them again. In that parenting class there are repeat offenders. There is one female in here who's last time away from the department of correction lasted a grand total of 29 days before she came back. She is a substance abuser. We hope that when you leave here you never come back but we know with 38% we're going to see you again within three years.

I think that for some families that due to circumstances, due to choices, due to society, due to whatever, has become a way of life. Granddaddy was in prison. Daddy was in prison and mother was in prison and the kids are there already are headed there as well. I think too often times that becomes a way of life but personally I believe that more than anything else it is tied to a poverty level and often times poverty level is tied to educational levels. If we can get them to stay in school, get their high school diploma, go to some advanced training, whether it's vo-tech, college, whatever, stay in school, get their education and get a job. We know that when inmates leave here, they have a much better chance of not darkening our doorway again if they have a GED and an even better chance of not returning if they have a job, especially a job that pays above $10,000.00 a year. That's what the national studies have shown and I would imagine if they did that study again today, the $10,000.00 amount would go up.

Our average cost per day per inmate is a little above $39.00 and I think the cost of medical care and all programming is a little more than $7.00 of that cost and by far the biggest part of it is the supervision and keep in mind that the department of correction has one of the very lowest cost per days in the nation. I think it's ranked fifth lowest and if you even out the playing field, if all the other states included in their equation everything that we include in ours, there would probably be a good change that we would be the lowest. Not that we deliver a cut-rate product but we're good at pinching pennies and a big part of that is due to the fact that we raise a lot of our own food on our farms. You can't just have officers here during the day or on rainy days or on odd days or just during the week. They're got to be here on weekends and every night, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. These inmates have to have someone who is a trained professional watching over them. If we don't do that, they're not safe and neither is the public. We're one of the bigger agencies. I mean, we're caring more than 12,000 inmates. We've got a staff now above 3,000, like 3,300, 3,400 and that will increase as we add more facilities. We've got a new one under way at Malvern. Our annual budget for inmate care and custody is just under $200,000,000.00 a year. That's not including the cost of new construction. That's in a separate budget. So, about $200,000,000.00 a year we spend of the taxpayers money to run these facilities and to hopefully return a better inmate than we've received and I think that we are very frugal. I do not think that you can look at our budget and start hacking away big chunks of fat out of it. I just don't think you're going to find it. Corrections, and I think anyone will tell you this, corrections, as a whole, across the nation are usually under-funded. I think that society as a whole, in Arkansas and every other state, has probably had its fill for crime. I know I have and everybody wants to be safe. No one wants their car stolen. Nobody wants their lawn mower stolen. They don't want to be mugged. I mean, no one in their right mind would want those things. Our legislators are representatives of the public. They're the ones who speak at the Capitol but they speak with the words of the public. They take the wishes of their constituents and bring them forth. So, sure, for the past few years we've seen a lot of increased penalty bills. As a matter of fact, one requiring 70% of the sentence to be served for certain violent crimes before that offender could be illegible for parole. As a result we have more people coming to us and we have them staying longer. Every time the Capitol opens for another legislative session, there is a new push for more enhanced penalties. We saw during the last session, the 2001 session, granted they were smaller crimes, the impact would be still much smaller. A lot of times it may only be five or six inmates a year, which doesn't sound like a lot until you look and see that you've got 10 or 12 bills just like that and then all of a sudden the numbers start to stack up and with each one of those that's another bill of about $15,000.00 a year. So, you're going to have a total impact from the legislative session that's a light session by standards of say another 100 inmates a year.

Drug offenders make up the bulk of our population. More than 20% of our beds are being taken up by someone who is here from violating state substance abusive laws. That's where our growth is primarily. Right in that area, that's our fastest growth. Maybe there is something else that can be done with those offenders and save these prison beds for the more threatening ones, of the violent ones, the rapist, the murderers, the robbers, those sorts of inmates.

Arkansas isn't in this alone. We're not the only one in the country with a growing prison population that's growing faster than our ability to build and pay for the building. All 50 states are seeing that and I think a lot of states are starting to rethink and trying to change directions on what to do and what they're doing with the sentencing laws and I think Arkansas will do the same thing. Now, I'm not broad enough or learned enough to know what needs to be done and I think that that's why you have lawmakers, that's why you have experts and I think everybody is going to sit down and talk and try to decide because this problem is not going away.

When all of these new beds come on line, we're still going to be backing up and unless something changes, we're going to be backing up until the end of time.

I hope everybody remembers is we have a difficult job to do. A very difficult job and it's not for everyone and we're trying to do the very best we can with what we have and I think, on any given day, we do a pretty darn good job. We're not perfect. We're going to make mistakes but I think on the whole we have a system Arkansas can be proud of. For the female inmates, I want everybody what I want people to understand is they're people too. They have feelings. They have families. They have friends. They're just not somebody standing in a white suite with a number on the front of it and a number on the back of it. They are human beings. They have made mistakes and they are in prison and most of them, at some point, will go home again and we hope they can be productive members of society. With that said, the other side of that is, I think when you listen to some of the female inmates and you hear their stories, they're mothers, their children are on the outside and they're in here. It is very easy to feel sorry for them. It's heartbreaking when a mother is separated from her children, any mother. That's heartbreaking. That is sad. So, I think it's only natural and it's very easy to feel sorry for them and not think beyond that. It's important to remember that no matter how heartbreaking it is, there's another side to this and that is, all of these women made a choice at some point. They chose to do drugs. They chose to drink. They chose not to seek help. They chose to stay in an abusive relationship. They made some choices that placed their children below something else. They chose drugs over their children. They chose alcohol over their children. They chose stealing over their children. At some point those children have come in second. So, you've got to always temper feeling sorry for them with the knowledge that they made some choices that were bad, that were flawed in thinking and that's what we try to do. You can feel sorry for them but you can also try to retune your thinking so that the choices they make the next time aren't the same and I think that is how we can be most beneficial to the female inmates and to their children and to their children's children. So, hopefully the cycle will be broken. Not for everyone but if it's broken just for one or two, that's a good start.