The number of women behind bars continues to rise in U.S.

The number of women behind bars continues to rise in U.S.

Women are increasingly getting caught up in the legal system and imprisoned often for issues relating to drug use.

The hammer of grief pounded upon Susan Burton following the senseless death of her five-year-old son in 1981. Her boy ran into the street, where an off-duty police officer’s car struck and killed him. She turned to cocaine and crack to drown out the unimaginably weighty sorrow. 

“As a young woman, I had experimented with recreational drugs,” Susan said. “But when I lost my son, I started to drink heavily and had easy access to crack cocaine. My community was saturated with it.” 


Soon her body began to depend on crack or the powder version, cocaine, to function, whichever she could get. She became addicted to the numbness and was eventually arrested for possession of crack cocaine. That landed her in prison.  


Burton’s experience is not unusual. Just because prison overpopulation is usually discussed in regards to males, America also has a glaring problem of over incarcerating mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmas. There are currently 108,000 women in prison in the United States — accounting for nearly 30% of the world’s incarcerated females. 


The growing trend is concerning advocates and some elected officials. Between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women in America increased by more than 750%, according to The Sentencing Project. That alarming spike is mainly traced back to two episodes in American history which continue to play supersized roles in our America-present: The ‘war on drugs’ and the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals.

More than 25% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, compared to 15% of men; in federal prisons, 61% of women compared to 50% of men. But women don’t use drugs more than men in society.

The formal ‘war on drugs’ was officially launched in the 1970s under the leadership of President Richard Nixon. Anyone caught possessing, selling or dealing drugs was automatically sentenced to serve prison time. By the 1990s the fallout — which has only expanded since — was evident to many. A 1999 report by the Center for Gender and Justice attributed the clamp down on drug use to a war on women, because rates of female incarceration have been twice as high as that of men since the 1980s. 


More than 25% of women in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, compared to 15% of men; in federal prisons, 61% of women compared to 50% of men. But women don’t use drugs more than men in society. In fact, men tend to use illicit drugs more than women. It’s when women do use drugs — and the reasons they’re drawn to them — that many experts think is where the focus should be; not steel cages and being cut off from their families. 


“A woman may start using drugs for a variety of reasons that are often different from men,” Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of Global Health Sciences at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, said.


“She may have had a history of abuse, trauma or be experiencing high levels of stress. She may consider drugs as one way to help her cope. She may have a boyfriend who suggests it, and she’s curious, or he may pressure her,” Strathdee continued. “My team’s research suggests that some women start using methamphetamine to help them lose weight, and some women report using drugs the first time because it was given to her ‘as a present.’ For several years, physicians in the US liberally offered prescription opiates for minor ailments, which contributed to the country’s opioid crisis.”

The problem with imprisoning a woman for using drugs or for the offenses she commits in her struggle to feed the beast — like theft or prostitution, to name two common ancillaries of addiction — is it doesn’t address the underlying trauma that’s left her leaning on substances to momentarily feel alive.

Some of the reasons for drug use listed above may apply to men as well, but men tend to initially use drugs for acceptance from peers or the thrill of engaging in risky behavior, which then may lead to addiction. 


Nabila El-Bassel, director of the Columbia Social Intervention Group, explained how a woman is often the one on the receiving end of abuse that leads to drug use.


“They (women) are often initiated into drug use by male partners, who exert a significant amount of control of their drug use and sexual practices,” El-Bassel said. 


“Gender-power dynamics often relegate women to be ‘second to the needle’ (if injection drug use) and make condom negotiation difficult. Disagreements over drug use or sexual practices place women at additional risk for intimate partner violence, which can further exacerbate drug use through self-medicating as a coping mechanism.”


She becomes caught in a vicious circle of being made to use by an abusive partner and then starts using to cope with the side effects of being in an abusive relationship. 

According to a report from Vera Institute — a nonprofit advocating for an improved justice system — 86% of women in prison have experienced sexual violence, and 77% have experienced violence at the hands, fists or feet of a partner prior to incarceration. These women — who live at the intersection of abuse, coercive control, trauma, and an unaffordable health care system — are the very American women being thrown into prison on charges tied to their coping mechanisms, substances. 


They have taken to self-medicating with drugs to cope with their anxiety, fear or pain. Many eventually become addicted and are more prone to take part in criminal behavior just to get their fix. And the criminal justice system’s answer to the problem is to put them behind bars for their naughty behavior.


The problem with imprisoning a woman for using drugs or for the offenses she commits in her struggle to feed the beast — like theft or prostitution, to name two common ancillaries of addiction — is it doesn’t address the underlying trauma that’s left her leaning on substances to momentarily feel alive.

Indiana Women's prison. Wiki Commons

“Incarceration tends to perpetuate the problems that led a woman to use drugs in the first place, and doesn’t deal with the root causes,” Dr. Strathdee of UCSD said.


There’s an open secret within the nation’s criminal justice industrial complex: The nation’s political class set up a system intended to exact the most amount of punishment; not one intended to rehabilitate or even assist those in the most need. Unfortunately, little funding is available for treatment services, leaving women in the same position they were in upon arriving at prison.


“Mental health hospitals existed to treat. Prisons are expected to punish,” Amy Fettig, the executive director of The Sentencing Project, said.


Fettig says law enforcement officials and eventually prison staff have become the first responders for addressing the mental health problems plaguing the nation. But that was never supposed to be the case when policy officials started de-institutionalizing psychiatric hospitals beginning in the 1960s (which everyone agrees were terrible, even if they did better at diagnosing the underlying problem than incarceration). Then you throw poverty, trauma and overly criminalizing drug use into the mix, and you have a recipe for the rates we see plaguing women nationwide.


“In the seventies and eighties, the government shut down mental health hospitals and planned to fund community mental health services,” Fettig said. “Closing mental health hospitals impacted women because of the fact that so many have been subject to trauma.”


If a woman has insurance, she can likely at least access community mental health services, but the system doesn’t recognize a woman if she’s poor. Those women are left to cope on their own, using drugs as a crutch for survival — that is, until she’s in a jumpsuit.

"Mental health hospitals existed to treat. Prisons are expected to punish."

When I spoke with Debi Campbell, deputy director of Family Outreach at FAMM — a nonprofit that advocates for sentencing reform — she recounted how she started using methamphetamine when she was working as a cocktail waitress.


“In my early 20s, I started struggling with anxiety. Meth made me feel normal. I started using every day and fell into selling it so that I could get it for free for myself,” Campbell said. 


She medicated herself, because no one else would. Doctors would just tell her to treat anxiety by reducing stress, which didn’t solve her uncontrollable shaking when she was overwhelmed by a panic attack. Campbell was sentenced to 19 years and 7 months in prison for conspiracy with intent to distribute methamphetamine.


“I think the thing that struck me the most was the women. I stereotyped what kind of women would be there,” Campbell said. “We picture not women like us, but the dregs of society, and then when you get there you’re shocked because you see yourself, mothers, grandmothers and sisters.”


On the second day of her incarceration, she had an intense attack — panic and fear gripped her — and she didn’t have meth to fall back on to calm her. She was seen by psychiatric services, put on Prozac and hasn’t had a panic attack since.


“When I was diagnosed and given medication, I was just desperate to feel normal. After about four months I didn’t have the anxiety anymore, and as time went by and I took self-help and addiction classes, I realized that had I been diagnosed years before I probably wouldn’t have used meth,” Campbell said.


Her time in prison could have been completely avoided, she says, had she only received treatment for her mental health issue earlier.


Campbell’s initial drug use was what led her to begin dealing. Personal drug use — whether recreational or medical — often leads to crimes in order to sustain the habit of using. Strathdee — the one at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine — explained how initial drug use then leads to other punishable crimes.


“Once a woman is addicted to a hard drug like heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, or cocaine, the withdrawal symptoms can drive her to desperation. That can start with petty theft, and it can often lead to sex work. In the drug trade, some women play specific roles, like acting as lookout, or carrying drugs across the border (‘mules’),” Strathdee continued. “If you look at the reasons why women are arrested, the reasons are much more likely to involve drug use or sex work compared to men.”


If a woman becomes addicted to a drug, her body begins to require it in order to function. She goes into survival mode in order to acquire whatever she has been using. 

Credit: Prison Policy Initiative

“The two things you see the most are prostitution or sex trafficking and drug possession,” Joy Sutton, of American Addiction Centers, said of how drug use leads to incarceration.


“It can start with a prescription of Adderall, but as the person’s use increases, they start buying it on the streets or turn to meth, which is illegal. This can spiral into a rabbit hole of needing money to fund your drugs, and that’s where prostitution can come into the picture, particularly for those who have experienced past trauma.”


To punish her crimes, many of which are the result of trauma, abuse or pain, the criminal justice system shackles her, slaps her with an extraordinarily long prison sentence and fails to treat the reason behind her initial drug use.


While terrifying, prison isn’t the worst part. Once these prisoners have ‘served their time,’ they then face the most daunting challenge of their life: They’re then thrust back into the world — those unforgiving, yet comforting, streets they once knew but that have evolved since they parted ways — without being equipped with the mental or educational tools they need; let alone the meds many can’t even afford.


“Incarceration interferes with housing, social services, food aid, travel, employment, education, and parenting; and the repeated cycles of violence, extortion, arrest, detention, and release are especially socially and economically destabilizing for women who use drugs,” El-Bassel, of the Columbia Social Intervention Group, said.

Credit: Prison Policy Initiative

She has essentially been set up to fail again upon her release. How will she get a job with a criminal record? Where will she live? Will she see her children? How does she cope with the trauma she has experienced both before and during her prison stay? What stigma will she carry following imprisonment? She may have no support to help her get her feet on solid ground again, making her vulnerable and at risk of abuse and drug use all over again.


Instead of pouring money into prisons, most advocates and reformists say those funds should be redirected to public health, housing, education, income support and childcare.


“Women with a drug addiction have special needs, and drug treatment programs that can deal with trauma, reproductive health issues, and child care,” Strathdee said.


If funding continues to be allocated to incarcerate women who have used and become addicted to drugs, women will continue to find themselves in circumstances that caused them to rely on drugs in the first place. Experts say the cycle won’t be broken until more treatment is available for addictions, mental health problems and trauma care.


It took Susan Burton — that mother who lost her son to a police cruiser — six imprisonments before she finally broke the government-sponsored cycle.


“I just kept falling into the same pattern each time I got out of prison,” Burton said. 


She was able to escape the cycle’s grip on her with the help of a friend and a drug treatment facility (the CLARE Foundation in Santa Monica) — not the concrete and shackles prescribed by the state. Burton received support in CLARE, but many aren’t so fortunate to find drug treatment centers they can afford.


It was her experience of treatment that pushed her to found A New Way Of Life, a non-profit that provides housing, case management, legal services, advocacy and leadership development for women rebuilding their lives after prison.


Burton is supporting women whose broken pieces were scattered after prison — women who should have been supported before prison.


“We’re not solving any problems putting women in prison for drug use. We’re simply putting more problems on top of already existing ones,” Burton continued, “The women are worse off coming out of prison than they were going in.”


In her book, “Becoming Ms. Burton,” she describes why she dedicated her life to helping formerly incarcerated women rebuild their lives: “I realized that formerly incarcerated people had no voice, and no one seemed willing to speak for us. As I built A New Way of Life, it sometimes felt as though a new underground railroad was taking shape. We, the people of the community, weren’t going to let each other fall.”


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