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Female Drug Offenders: Punishment or Treatment?

BY: YARA COSTA

Rene Jones was only 16 when she first tried cocaine. Soon her addiction to cocaine, crack, heroine and alcohol led to committing crimes, and in 1991, Jones was charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance and was arrested for the first time.

The 10 years she spent in prison completed her sentences (she’s been out on probation since 2003). But her 20-year addiction problem was only addressed less than a year ago after a judge’s decision sent her to Green Hope, a special program designed as an alternative to regular incarceration for drug offenders.

“It’s no different than prison, but you go to self-supporting groups and counselors everyday,” says Jones. “It helped me learn more about myself, and I stopped [using drugs] because I had the help to stop.”

Known as Alternatives to Incarceration, ATI programs like Green Hope provide treatment at supervised facilities to women with substance abuse problems who have committed non-violent crimes. ATIs are based on the same principles as probation. Participants, who are often recommended to a judge by the DA or treatment courts, are required to pay regular visits to the court to monitor whether they have been attending the educational and vocational training required by the programs. This helps assure that upon completion, they are on the right track to finding housing and a job, both of which these programs help with. As part of their agreement with the judge, offenders have to accomplish the program goals in order to get their legal case suspended.

ATIs first started appearing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The exact number of women offenders who are sent to ATIs every year is unavailable; however the vast majority are still sent to traditional prisons. But with the recent reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws the hope is that since judges will have greater discretion, the use of ATIs will increase as a sentencing option.

For advocates like Andrea Williams, program director of ReConnect, a New York advocacy program for formerly incarcerated women, ATIs are preferable because they address the primary issue that a woman is dealing with, such as drug addiction or domestic violence.

“These issues are best dealt with in a setting where the woman can receive treatment for the primary issue and other supportive services, such as therapy, vocational counseling, help with family reunification,“ says Williams.

A recent study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, an institution that works with justice and safety, showed that among women who were residents of an ATI program, the use of illegal drugs declined from 80 percent to 42 percent. At Green Hope, which currently serves 42 women, the rate of success is even higher, with 90 percent of women completing the program, according to Estelle Pierce, legal director of the community-based program.

Mayra Collado knows that success firsthand as a formerly incarcerated woman who is now a therapeutic counselor at an ATI in Brooklyn. “When you go to jail, you don’t learn anything and you keep repeating the same mistakes again,” says Collado, who was released in 2007 after serving 8 years on drug charges at New York’s Albion Correctional Facility. “In this program [ATI] we work with their behavior, their attitude. We concentrate on them so that when they have a family or any other problem, they don’t go back to use drugs.”

The residential programs can last from 6 to 9 months, and at any time women are allowed to leave such programs—but if they do so, the ATI has to report their departure to the court to decide the consequences, which often include going back to prison.

Jail time is not only a costly price to pay for the individual but for society. Green Hope spends about $20,000 per year to provide its women with residential services and $9,000 to provide them with day treatment service. This is almost half of what is spent in regular prisons across the country.

When it comes to women offenders, crime and drug addiction are directly linked, according to criminal experts. In the past 3 years, 42 percent of women that entered federal prisons where charged with drug offenses. In New York State prisons, 80 percent of the women were convicted of non-violent drug offenses. According to the US Department of Justice, one out of three of those women reported committing that offense to support a drug addiction.

In addition, after working for more than 10 years with drug patients, Pierce and fellow advocates believe there are greater issues behind the origins of drug use when it comes to women.

“No one wakes up and decides to use drugs and go out and commit crimes and be in and out of jail,” says Pierce. “It always starts with a trauma.”

The traumatic experience of being molested and abused by her father and later by her partner left Jones with scars on her face and low self-esteem that didn’t improve during her years in prison.

“When I came out I was bitter at authorities and angry because of my childhood, ” says Jones, who just finished an ATI program herself this past October and now spends her weekends looking after her five grandchildren.

More than 40 percent of New York’s women prisoners are incarcerated at Albion, where a 6 month alcohol and substance abuse treatment program is also available. But just like Jones, for most of these women drug addiction is often related to a combination of factors, including abuse, trauma, domestic violence, lack of education and unemployment, according to addiction experts. ATIs are better equipped to combat that combination than traditional prison substance abuse treatment programs, argues Jamilah Alexander, deputy director of ATIs of the Women’s Prison Association.

“They had these kinds of issues for many years, so if you don’t participate in a program that can help you get on the right track, then what’s going to happen is that when you get incarcerated you are going to come right back out to that,” says Alexander. “In prison they don’t work on those issues that lead them to be incarcerated in the first place.”

Another challenge that prison treatment programs face is the loss of connection between the inmate and the outside world. When coming out of prison, women are faced with a new reality and often they don’t know how to deal with the difficulties.

“Here [in ATIs] you get training, a job, an apartment, and when you leave out of there [prison] you are out and alone in the streets,” says Collado.

Community-based ATIs like the Women’s Prison Association try to avoid the shock of being thrown into a new environment, and thus reduce the chances of recidivism, by allowing women to spend time outside, instead of having them isolated from the world for too long like in traditional prisons.

“It’s much easier and more effective to have these women clean from drugs while having them visit their communities and letting them know what is going on there so that get accustomed,” says Alexander.

Still, not every ATI is the same. Although the numbers of ATIs may be rising, there are only five female-only programs in the state, according to Pierce. This has prompted a push for more female-only ATIs from advocates who argue that the single-sex setting is more effective for women.

“Women don’t feel comfortable having to address their issues in front of men because they associate the male figure with the one that abused her in the past,” says Pierce. ”For women, being in that type of program is hard and it doesn’t work.”

In addition, even though the vast majority of these women offenders are mothers, only women-specific programs can allow their children to live with them.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Rockefeller reforms, advocates are crossing their fingers that now is finally the time that ATIs will become commonplace in the criminal justice system.

“When they arrest these women, they arrest a criminal,” says Pierce. “But when they go back to court after spending time with us, the judge sees a human being.”



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