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The Abuse-Incarceration Connection


A victim of domestic violence for over 20 years, more often than not, Lisa Rappa turned to drugs for relief, rather than to police.

“I become comfortably numb,” says 42-year-old Rappa. “The whole idea of doing drugs is that you don’t feel. You don’t want to cry.”

Those years of abusive relationships left Rappa with one deaf ear and several scars on her face, and what’s more, a history in jail. She was arrested over 15 times, mostly due to drug-related offenses. And for the past 19 years, she was either in jail, in a drug treatment programs, or homeless in the streets.

Rappa is one of the overwhelming large number of female offenders in the United States reported to have been physically or sexually abused.

According to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2007 more than 50 percent of the women in jail reported to have been physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment, compared to more than 10 percent of the men. And the number of drug offenders like Rappa has risen about 37 percent between 1996 and 2002, representing the largest source of jail population growth.

A 1999 study by Miller, Browne and Maguin also found that 82 percent of women at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility had a childhood history of severe physical and/or sexual abuse and that more than 90 percent had suffered physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Social service experts believe that traumas from domestic violence and sexual abuses are one of the major pathways that lead female victims of such abuse to a life of addiction.

“Women in prison are more likely to be drug abusers because they tend to use drugs to self-medicate after being abused or experiencing different types of violence, ”says Natalie Sokoloff, a professor of sociology at John Jay College who specializes in women’s studies and judicial justice.

This trend has constantly drawn attention from experts prompting advocates in recent years to increasingly call for a judicial system that more overtly acknowledges the relationship between abuse, drug addiction, and crime when it comes to women. That call to action from scholars and advocates includes the need for such experiences to play a greater role in sentences as well as a push for more gender-specific social services to support women drug offenders.

“If we don’t take them into account in our judicial system, it is very difficult for the woman ever to be able to transcend that kind of trauma and become productive members of the society,” says Myrna Raeder, a professor at Southwestern Law School who specializes in gender equality in the legal system.

Now, such experiences are rarely taken into consideration by judges during the sentencing of female drug offenders.

“The judges are always looking for a duress link, that is, how such experiences are related to your crimes,” says Raeder. “But a duress link is really difficult to prove.”

Instead, according to Raeder, many of these women’s drug addiction was born out of the attempt to self-medicate themselves from the traumas of domestic physical or sexual abuse, rather than being directly under duress.

This was the case for Rappa, who was convicted of three felonies as a result of her drug addiction, and says her experience with domestic violence was rarely a topic in the courtroom.

“The judge did not ask,” says Rappa. “They are not related to my crimes at all.”

For 47-year-old Elizabeth Leslie, her history of sexual abuse and domestic violence was too shameful to talk about at court.

“To be honest, the judicial system is a cold place,” says Leslie. “I was so ashamed to tell anyone of my abusive life. I thought these things made me disgusting and unworthy.”

Leslie was sexually abused by her uncle when she was 4 years old. Throughout her childhood, she was also subjected to constant physical and verbal abuse from her mother. She was convicted seven times of criminal possession of controlled substance or narcotic drugs during her almost 30 years of drug addition.

But to abate the fast growth of female drug offenders, a more rational judicial system may not be enough. The development of more gender-responsive programs that tackle women’s specific needs in recovering from such traumas is also needed, says Raeder.

Her opinions echo that of many organizations, like the Crossroads For Women and Greenhope Services For Women, that have gained popularity as a result of increasing social attention on female offenders in the recent decades.

“I was sitting around other women who had gone through the same experiences,” says Carole Eady, a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence who attended the Crossroads’ women drug rehab program in 1999. “I felt I could identify with them and I was able to talk about all those feelings and all those experiences without feeling being stigmatized anymore.”

A drug addict for about 12 years, Eady was in jail six times, all due to drug-related offenses. She tried to get clean several times with various drug treatment centers but could never complete the program until she attended the Crossroad’s women-only approach.

“I was able to go home,” she says. “I was able to see my children and to visit my family every night. I only had to go to the program during the daytime.”

When Elizabeth Leslie was arrested for the 29th time in 2004 and again convicted of criminal possession of controlled substance, she also required to be sent to a women-only drug treatment program.

“I needed to be safe—no men,” says 47-year-old Leslie. “When a woman is there, she can identify with me.”

Leslie attended the Greenhope Services for Women in 2005 and overcame her dozens of years of addiction after the 9-month program. Now she has a permanent job at the New York City Department of Buildings.

According to data released by Greenhope’s website, the organization maintains a 75 percent successful completion rate among parolees, which is significantly higher than the 25 percent standard set for this population by the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. In addition, its recidivism rate was less than 10 percent.

Despite their success, the number of these gender-responsive programs is still far from enough to meet the needs, according to Ellen Tuchman, a professor of social work at New York University who specializes in substance abuse.

“The substance treatment models had been based on men for a very long time because the majority of substance abusers used to be men,” says Tuchman.

To turn things around Tuchman argues that more funding is needed to develop a wider network that would reach out to women’s specific needs as mothers, or as victims of abuse, either domestic or sexual. In addition, for such programs to work, other social services like a friendlier child-care system also need to be developed.

“A lot of times when a woman comes to a substance treatment agency to ask for help, and if she has children at home, child welfare is called immediately,” says Tuchman. “Many women fear losing their children so they do not come and ask for help at all.”

Tuchman is currently researching alternatives that would allow women to seek treatment at a doctor’s office rather than from a substance abuse agency. Her model allows physicians to prescribe methadone for women who use heroin so that they can pick up the medicine at a pharmacy just as they pick up any other medication.

In the meantime, although the call put out by those who work with formerly incarcerated women is finally being heard, action may take a bit longer to come.

“It takes time to reverse the current policies,” says Raeder, from Southwestern Law School, who has been arguing for decades for domestic violence to always be considered a mitigating factor in sentencing. “I wish I could be more optimistic.”

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