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Rehabilitation vs Incarceration:
Non-Violent Women Drug Offenders
By: Charon Schwartz
11/19/2001

I am a daughter, a sister, a mother of four children, a classical pianist and teacher, a drug addict, a felon, and inmate #N87420 of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

 

Alcoholism and addiction is a disease. Because it is a disease, communities should address it as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue. Imprisonment only removes a symptom, but does not cure the problem. The number of women incarcerated is steadily rising at frightening rates. When you incarcerate a woman, most often, you are also incarcerating a mother. The state not only pays to house the offender, but often pays for the care of the children of the offender as well. Women offenders have special needs many of which revolve around their children. Corrections should be perceived as a positive and helping connection, not a punitive one. In our present system, unfortunately, the women must often first fail before they are given the level of treatment they needed in the beginning. A new approach to corrections, one that offers a highly structured environment and stresses accountability, as well as, addressing the individual needs of each offender will not only save money, but also more importantly, it will save lives.


My crime is considered a victimless one, but I say, there are no victimless crimes. My family, my children and I are the victims of my crime. My crime is a disease; the disease of addiction -- cunning, baffling and powerful. (AA Big Book, How It Works).

Here are some staggering statistics:

  • Since 1990, the number of women inmates has grown at an average rate of 8.5 percent and has increased 92 percent! 

  • Nearly one-third of women serving time in state prisons report that they committed their offense to get money to buy drugs.

  • More than half the women in prison report committing their offense under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

  • Nearly 6 in 10 women in state prison report having experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past.

  • The typical female offender comes from a single parent home in which other family members have been incarcerated.

  • Approximately 75 percent of incarcerated women are mothers, and two-thirds have children under the age of 18. Seventy-two (72) percent of women prisoners with children under the age of 18 lived with those children before entering prison.

  • There are now 150,00 women incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. Most women are in jail as a direct result of drug and alcohol addiction. $109 million is going to supervise 54,000 people in prison and $9 million for services.

    Over one million people are arrested each year on drug related charges.

    If the jail population continues to grow at the current rate, by the year 2053 the U.S. will have more people in jail than out.

    DOC data shows that about one-fourth of those initially imprisoned for non-violent crimes are sentenced a second time for committing a violent offense. Whatever else it reflects, this pattern highlights the possibility that prison serves to transmit violent habits and values rather than to curtail them

    As a person who has run the gamut from rehabs, to jails, to prison, I speak from personal experience when I say that addiction is a disease and those who are in its grip need help – not prison. It should be treated as a public health issue and not a criminal issue.

    Communities should take responsibility and become involved in getting and giving education, reaching out to their communities to offer assistance helping addicts find hope through programs that take a holistic approach to their disease. Addicts need programs that heal body, mind and, most importantly, their shattered spirit.

    Let me clearly state I am not saying addicts who commit crimes should go unpunished. I do believe, however, alternatives to incarceration are more cost effective. Programs that stress rehabilitation, allows the offender an opportunity to re-enter society as a responsible and productive citizen.

    The prison system has become a revolving door for drug offenders. Upon serving their sentence, they are released back into the same environment from which they came, without any skills or education to change their situation. Often the knowledge they have gained in prison is better ways to commit more crimes.

    The number of women under correctional supervision has increased by 71.8 percent and drug offenders were the largest source of growth.

    Research on women’s pathways into crime clearly suggests that gender matters in the forces that propel women into criminal behavior and therefore, gender must be taken into account..

    Women in prison have experienced far higher rates of physical and sexual abuse than their male counterparts. 43% of women surveyed reported they had been abused at least once before their current admission to prison.

    Many women suffer from some form of mental illness or co-occurring disorder. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1999c), nearly 8 in 10 female mentally ill offenders reported prior physical or sexual abuse.

    The women in our criminal justice system have histories of trauma and substance abuse. Most are non-violent offenders and are not considered to be threats to the community. Their greatest needs are for comprehensive treatment for drug abuse and trauma recovery, education and training in job and parenting skills, and safe and sober housing.

    When women do enter treatment programs, they find recovery complicated by childcare issues, inadequate social support systems, and lack of financial resources. They also suffer from higher rates of eating disorders, co-occurring disorders, and health problems. Treatment for women offenders must take these complex issues into account.

    Oftentimes, (I have experienced this myself) women are thrown into whatever programs are provided by the State or DOC, regardless of whether these programs meet the particular needs of the offender. Obviously, for all our time, effort, and money, we are no closer to solving the problem of women committing crimes. Perhaps, what we need to do is simply go back to the basic – to reduce our treatment of women offenders to the lowest denominator, that of human and humane contact.

    We need to see the anti-social behaviors as a product of unfortunate circumstances, of childhood brutality, neglect, or victimization, and ask what needs there women are trying to meet in such dysfunctional ways.

    If we respond to these needs on a personal level, in a way that engenders trust and confidence, women offenders can begin to hope again and the lives of families can be rebuilt. If people do not have hope, there is nothing to strive for, no reason to change.

    Instead of incarceration, I believe it would be more cost-effective to put women offenders in a community based program similar to the work release program that is used for prisoners after incarceration.

    These programs would allow the individual to maintain a job, yet they would be held accountable for all their time. They would receive counseling on an individual basis geared toward each one’s individual needs.

    I also believe community service work would be extremely beneficial. I don’t mean picking up garbage and scraping graffiti from walls, which only further adds to a sense of worthlessness. Why not allow them to spend time soothing the cries of a baby born addicted to drugs, or let them read stories to children in hospitals dying of cancer, let them feed the hungry and homeless, let them do something that reaches to the very foundation of their soul and eventually I believe they will begin to realize and appreciate the precious gift life is.

    A holistic approach would first heal the body with proper nutrition and regular exercise. Their minds should be given positive ways to deal with their personal stressors. They needs ways to learn how to regain respect for themselves, how to love themselves again and begin to rebuild their low self-esteem. Most importantly, and most often not implemented in community programs, ways for women to heal within. Spiritual growth that would allow women to find direction and focus teaching them to embrace their spirit within where they eventually learn they have always had everything they’ve ever needed right inside themselves.

    The best programs combine supervision and services to address the specialized needs of female offenders in highly structured, safe environments where accountability is stressed.

    In conclusion, I believe that if communities would make an effort to educate themselves and their communities about the disease of alcoholism and addiction, they would begin to understand the magnitude of the problem. Although there are no easy solutions, we must all accept the responsibility of educating our children, offer new and innovative programs that heal holistically, and most importantly, accept responsibility that as citizens we must reach out to help those in our communities who are struggling, offering them hope, support and encouragement. The bottom line is, what it all comes down to is – GET INVOLVED AND HELP!!!


    Charon Schwartz is presently in a work release center in Aurora, Illinois, and is studying Criminal Justice.   She is hoping to develop and implement new, innovative programs for women that would give drug offenders a chance to live in a highly structured, save environment while being able to work and support their families.
    You can contact Ms. Schwartz at:
    Fox Valley A
    1329 N. Lake Street
    Aurora, IL. 60510
    charonhoosings@yahoo.com

    The opinions and viewpoints expressed in this Article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of PrisonerLife.com, it's owners, employees, volunteers, or advertisers.  PrisonerLife.com is NOT the publisher of such information, but merely provides the forum in which the author may place their article on the Internet. The truthfulness or accuracy of any statement has NOT been investigated nor verified by PrisonerLife.com.

        

       


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