Incarcerated Women and the Mission of the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law
Long before women enter the criminal justice system, they are victims. Whether because of physical and sexual violence, substance abuse or poverty, the lives of incarcerated women are often mired in systemic and personal trauma. And yet, for the grave vulnerabilities of these women, they are often left with the fewest social resources.
For the 80 percent of women in jail who are mothers, this trauma translates into the lives of their children. Children of incarcerated mothers face not only the devastating psychological effects of losing a parent, but must also weather the familial and financial instability specific to families affected by incarceration.
Motivated by the unmet needs of incarcerated women, the fastest growing jailed population, the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law is committed to utilizing its resources and experience to engage in efforts positively affecting these ignored women and their families.
What We Do
Over the last 15 years, the Harriett Buhai Center has been a consistent advocate for incarcerated women in the following ways:
• Mothers Behind Bars Program: Since 2004, Center attorneys have provided a legal education program to thousands of women at Century Regional Detention Facility (CDRF), the largest women’s jail in the U.S., located in Los Angeles. Classes seek to improve the students’ understanding of the family and child welfare legal systems. This knowledge empowers students to improve their parent-child relationships and take action against domestic violence.
• Women’s Gender-Responsive Jail Project: Originally named the Mira Loma Women’s Jail Project, this project aimed to investigate, monitor, and provide recommendations related to the proposed move of the Los Angeles County Women’s Jail. The Center anticipated family ties and rehabilitation would be harmed by moving the jail 90 miles away from the existing hub of service providers, courts, and community organizations. Its seminal report, Lynwood to Lancaster, was relied upon in part by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in February 2019 when announcing their decision to abandon the long distance Mira Loma move. Through the project, the Center continues to work with Los Angeles County and Sheriff Department as members of the Gender Responsive Advisory Committee (GRAC).
• Community Legal Education Program: Begun as a pilot in early 2019, the Center started teaching men’s and women’s legal education classes at various Probation offices. Well received, the Center hopes to expand the program as probation departments across the county become increasingly interested in strengthening the relationships of parents and their children impacted by incarceration.
• Individual Legal Assistance to Formerly Incarcerated Women: Beginning with a 2010-12 Equal Justice Works Fellowship, the Center has directly served justice-involved women in the family law courts to increase contact and create the foundation for healthier relationships.
The Future of Our Efforts
The Harriett Buhai Center plans to continue to its focus and build on its efforts to create a gender responsive system for women who are incarcerated in LA in order to address the trauma in their lives and strengthen their relationships with their children. The work this year will include:
➢ Working with County and Sheriff Department personnel to ensure the timely hiring of a Director of Gender Responsive Services and an expert consultant on gender responsive systems to evaluate the current jail programs for women;
➢ Advocating for the re-start of and participating in a strong and effective GRAC focused on the needs of incarcerated women;
➢ Evaluating and advocating for increased visitation with children at the LA County Jail;
➢ Advocating for improved and additional re-entry planning;
➢ Participating in and advocating for County efforts to create alternatives to incarceration for women which are designed to be gender-responsive.
In addition to its reform agenda, the Harriett Buhai Center will continue to utilize its expertise to provide legal education in the jail and community and free individual legal advice, counselling and representation for women in custody and other family matters.