Alfreda Robinson-Dawkins Courtesy photo-004

Alfreda Robinson-Dawkins

When Diane Sawyer hosted an hour-long ABC News special about the lives of women in prison Feb. 27, Baltimorean Alfreda Robinson-Dawkins was also watching. Robinson-Dawkins knows the subject intimately. She has lived it, serving almost 10 years in federal prison. And in her work as founder and executive director of the National Women’s Prison Project, she has helped many women who have also lived it.

“I really liked Diane Sawyer,” she said. “She was sympathetic and showed that the number of females who are being incarcerated is soaring.”

{20/20} reported that women are the fastest growing group of prisoners in the country compared to men. Robinson-Dawkins said she is not completely sure why the numbers of imprisoned women are rising so rapidly.

However, from her experience, she knows why many women end up in prison. “Because of loyalty to the man in their lives,” she said. “Trying to be the protector, to take care of the children or doing something they would not have ordinarily done.”

Whatever the reason, she said, when these women are imprisoned, they leave a hole that cannot be filled. “Women have held the traditional role of being the glue to keep the family together. The mom goes to prison and now who is raising the kids? We’ve got a foster system that is growing out of control, kids being raised all over the place by whosoever will,” she said.

While watching the show, Robinson-Dawkins noted that many of the women on the show were victims of sexual crimes or suffered from various forms of mental illness. She said that these women need care, not imprisonment. “The solution is to better understand the women’s pathway to the criminal justice system. Look at some of the things going on in her life.

“Maybe it would make more economic sense to give drug treatment, or mentor,” she said. “That way we can begin to break the cycle of these minority families going to prison.”

She also said that for many people, prison becomes a kind of community. She said that there are people who find solace in the prison system. “They have to find a better way of surviving in the community,” she said.

“If we can do a better job up front . . . prison should be the last alternative for the most serious or heinous crime.”