A 2017 audit of the Jackson County Jail in downtown Medford concluded it was too small and its design was outdated. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]

Women's crime climbs

The Jackson County Jail and Oregon's only prison for women are overflowing with a burgeoning number of female offenders — prompting local and state officials to rethink a criminal justice system that largely has overlooked the ways women criminals differ from men.

Women offenders are more likely to be the primary caregiver for their children, earn less money, face drug addiction and mental health issues, and be victims themselves of violence and sexual abuse, among other differences.

The Jackson County Jail regularly releases inmates due to overcrowding, but women are even more likely to be released than men because of a lack of beds for females.

"We don't have nearly enough room for female offenders," says Jackson County sheriff's Jail Commander Capt. Dan Penland. "Oftentimes we have some bed space for males. Females are more likely to be released due to overcrowding."

On a recent day at the jail, the 42-bed women's section was filled to its official capacity, but 48 women were inside. The extra women were being housed in alternate spaces, such as holding cells built to temporarily secure men or women when they arrive at the jail. 

The women's section occupies the ground floor, with men in the basement and on the second floor. Jail staff members can't move the overflow of women inmates into any empty men's units because they have to be housed separately, Jackson County sheriff's Lt. Josh Aldrich says.

A 2017 audit concluded the jail, built in 1981, is too small and has an outdated design with long hallways that makes supervision of inmates difficult.

The jail recorded 2,085 lodgings of females in 2003, but numbers have climbed steadily over the years, hitting 3,749 lodgings in 2017, according to Penland.

The lodging figures don't track individual women. Some women are repeat visitors to the jail, which helps drive up the numbers, he says.

"It seems more and more female offenders are coming into the system," says Penland, who has decades of law enforcement experience.

He says multiple factors are driving the increase. Compared to years past, police officers are more likely to arrest women instead of letting them go. Women appear to be committing more serious crimes, and drug use also is driving criminal activity.

"We find a lot of meth, a lot of heroin on people coming into jail," Penland says.

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert says females are more likely to be charged with crimes these days. When she first started her legal career, prosecutors would sometimes file charges against a man but not his girlfriend, even if they were both involved in a crime.

"Women are being held more accountable in the criminal justice system," Heckert says.

Additionally, Heckert says local law enforcement agencies are adding officers, which increases arrests.

While the number of reported property crimes and violent crimes committed by men and women has fallen statewide from 1994 to 2016, property crimes and violent crimes have both increased in Jackson County, according to Oregon Uniform Crime Reports Incidents.

The reports don't separate male and female crimes at the county level.

But looking at data from arrests that led to finger-printing, the violent crime and property crime arrest rates for females both have risen in Jackson County — bucking a statewide trend of falling violent crime and property crime arrest rates for females.

The District Attorney's Office filed 6,543 cases against males and females in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, but with numbers steadily rising, projects filing more than 7,800 cases in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Heckert says.


Men and women usually arrive at the jail in the same way — in the back of a police car that enters a large garage with roll-down doors. The garage is called a sally port, a term for a secure, controlled entryway into a jail, prison or other fortified building.

During busy times, the sally port fills with five or six police cars at once, Penland says.

"It can be quite chaotic at times," he said.

Men and women being brought to the jail are often combative and under the influence of alcohol or drugs, Penland says.

From the garage, people are brought into a small, reinforced room where they submit to a pat-down search, remove their shoes and belts, and — especially for women — undo their hair so it can be searched.

Female jail staff members usually pat down the women being brought in, except in cases of a serious emergency, like a woman attacking a staff member or wielding a weapon, Penland says.

In the booking area, incoming people are fingerprinted and go to another room for a strip search. Both males and females try to hide contraband like weapons and drugs in body cavities, Penland says.

He recalls one woman who was concealing a small loaded pistol.

"She easily could have reached down and grabbed it and caused quite a bit of chaos," Penland says.

Each of the small cells in the booking area can hold more than one person. The cells also can be used to isolate people from other inmates. Signs saying "Female" can be placed on the metal doors of the cells so staff members know whether a woman is inside.

Penland says some inmates cover their heads with blankets, so it can be hard to know their sex just by looking into cells.

On a recent visit, a woman in a holding cell was yelling obscenities and threats that mentioned everyone from sheriff's office staff members to national political figures.

The woman is suffering from mental illness and has to be held separately so she won't disturb other inmates in the women's section of the jail, Penland says.

Staff members have to keep a close eye on certain inmates and check them frequently, especially those who are suicidal or intoxicated, he says.

The jail has a full-time mental health worker and also receives support from Jackson County Mental Health, Penland says.

He says about three-quarters of the inmates have been in the jail before.

Sheriff's Deputy Cynthia Mallari says she sees the same people over and over.

"They seem like they come in and out," she says.

She says deputies who work in the jail try not to delve into the inmates' personal lives, but they know many have difficult backgrounds.

"A lot of them come from broken homes and their parents are just as big of a mess as they are," Mallari says.

At times, Penland says the jail is housing a woman, her boyfriend or husband, and their adult child.

When adults become addicted to drugs, they often live in squalid conditions, sometimes inside condemned houses or buildings. Kids grow up not knowing what a normal family looks like, he says.

"These kids grow up in broken homes. The kids don't know any better because mom, dad, brother and sister were always in jail," Penland says. "Going to jail is not an issue."

Women vs. men

A long hallway leads down the women's section of the jail, with bunks and day-use areas lining one side of the hall.

Women are divided into small groups.

Who bunks with whom is usually determined by a classification system that looks at prior criminal history and other factors, says Aldrich.

The jail also keeps track of "keep-aways" — inmates who have to be kept separated because they don't like each other, he says.

"That's more with men because it gets physical faster than with women," Aldrich says.

Each women's group has a cell with bunk beds, a sink, a toilet without any walls for privacy and a frosted window that allows natural light in but no view of the outdoors. The groups each have a small day-use area with a metal table and attached stools, plus a metal bench facing a wall-mounted television.

Each group area also has a bucket and mop, as well as a rolling cart of books.

Penland says once the women clean their areas, they can watch television. Their section shows less wear and tear than the men's sections, and the women are less likely to vandalize the jail.

"Women seem to take better care of things than the males do, for the most part. They seem to be cleaner," he says.

Male inmates prepare food for the jail. Women can't work in the kitchen because of the presence of men, but can work in the laundry area, Penland says.

He says he wishes it was safe to let the women work in the kitchen, too.

"They're better workers than the guys. They take a little more pride," Penland says.

Mallari says the women act more like a family unit, with some of the older women taking on a mothering role in relation to the younger inmates.

The women seem to have a closer relationship with their children than the men, Penland says.

The jail is sometimes home to women who are pregnant. They receive prenatal care and different dietary allotments, Aldrich says.

Pregnancy becomes especially problematic when the woman is addicted to drugs. The jail consults with an outside doctor in those cases, he says.

Unless women are facing serious criminal charges, staff members work with the court system and the District Attorney's Office to find alternatives to jail for pregnant women, Aldrich says.

"We try everything we can to make sure people are not in our custody when they have a baby," he says.

Jailed women who go into labor are transferred to a hospital.

Aldrich attended the birth of a child to an inmate who was jailed on serious child abuse charges. The baby was taken away, and the woman came back to jail and later was sent to prison.

Revolving door

Penland says the jail has Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs, but stopped providing other programs because most inmates cycling through don't stay long enough to benefit.

The programs ended up serving inmates held for long periods of time because they faced federal charges or charges for Measure 11 crimes, he says.

Passed in 1994 by Oregon voters, Measure 11 established mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain violent crimes. Inmates often wait a year or more in jail before accepting plea agreements or going to trial on Measure 11 charges, although the court system is trying to speed up the process with faster plea negotiations.

To benefit from programs that address factors such as addiction that contributed to their crimes, Penland says jail inmates need to stay for 60 to 90 days — not for the three or four days typical of inmate stays.

"We weren't really accomplishing anything," he says of the discontinued jail programs.

Jackson County Community Justice invested the program dollars in other areas of the criminal justice system where the money would have more impact, Penland says.

The 2017 audit of the jail's capacity and design found Jackson County has done a good job of setting up alternative incarceration programs, including drug treatment and mental health courts.

But inmates who are released quickly from jail often re-offend and lose their eligibility for the programs that could address long-term issues, the audit found.

Building a new jail would be a costly endeavor that would take years of planning.

"Our hope is if we're able to get a new jail, we can keep people in long enough to get them into programs," Penland says.

He says many inmates would benefit from drug and alcohol treatment and programs that teach parenting, job and basic life skills.

Penland says officials haven't yet estimated how many more jail beds for women are needed, but he believes the current number falls far short.

"We need double at least, maybe even triple," he says.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or Follow her at




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