The Lived Experience of Long-Term Sentences in California Women’s Prisons

The University of California Sentencing Project (UCSP), in collaboration with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and the UCLA Center for the Study of Women|Streisand Center, is proud to announce the release of its groundbreaking report: “Maximizing Time, Maximizing Punishment: The Lived Experience of Long-Term Sentences in California Women’s Prisons.”

The UCSP, founded in 2019 as a research collaboration between CCWP and the University of California, aims to shed light on extreme prison sentencing through participatory research approaches that center the experiences of individuals directly impacted by incarceration. This inaugural report, “Maximizing Time, Maximizing Punishment,” represents a significant step toward understanding the profound consequences of long-term sentences in California’s women’s prisons.

The report emerges from the invaluable insights of twenty-two collaborators, all of whom have either served or faced long-term sentences in California’s women’s prisons. Through in-depth interviews and focus groups, the study highlights five critical themes:

  • Unrecognized as a Victim or Survivor: The report exposes the criminal legal system’s systematic failure to acknowledge that many individuals’ criminalization is a result of their survival instincts and traumatic experiences. This lack of recognition fuels the imposition of extreme sentences.

  • Traumatized by Criminal Legal Procedure: The study reveals that the criminal legal process, characterized by racialized, gendered, and sexualized violence, generates and intensifies trauma for incarcerated individuals. This trauma hinders their ability to effectively participate in their own defense, perpetuating the cycle of injustice.

  • Hanging in the Balance of Racist, Sexist Law and Order Politics: The report delves into the hidden complexities of sentencing, exposing how it is not merely a judicial event but rather entwined with the broader web of political actors and structural forces that perpetuate racial and gender biases in sentencing outcomes.

  • Sentenced by Prison and Parole Authorities: Prison authorities, prison guards, and Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) commissioners play significant roles in extending the duration and punitive effects of sentencing. 

  • Sentenced to a Lifetime: The harmful impacts of long-term prison sentences are embodied; relational; life-long; and multigenerational.

Maximizing Time, Maximizing Punishment” is an urgent call to action for reform in California’s criminal justice system. It urges policymakers, advocates, and the public to recognize the human toll of long-term sentences and the urgent need for change.