Researchers and social workers in the field of drug and addiction treatment have long understood that women’s substance abuse tends to be interrelated with serious and unresolved life traumas and the societal imperative that women not act out their discontent, anger or aggression in the public sphere. Knowing what we know about women in prison with histories of substance abuse—including the fact that the majority of all women in prison have a mental illness, much more so if substance abuse is also involved—imprisonment has increasingly become the nonsensical American reaction to drug crimes of any kind.
Simply put, the war on drugs is the main reason for the explosive growth in women’s imprisonment, and New Mexico is no exception. Here, the vast majority of women doing time don’t just have substance abuse histories (at 85 percent) but have a nonviolent drug-related violation as their primary sentencing offense.
We know, without a doubt, that the overwhelming majority of women in New Mexico’s jails and prisons—and in cities across the US—come from backgrounds of poverty and abuse, typically entering the prison system with chronic medical and/or psychiatric problems. (Women in prison also have higher rates of HIV, hepatitis C and MRSA than their male counterparts.) This situation would be difficult even if it were not regularly compounded by humiliating cavity searches, callous disregard for the needs of the mentally ill and indifference to providing the tools women need to re-enter society. Many women go straight to their cells from the streets, fleeing abusive homes, or from marginal housing situations. (One-third of women in jail were homeless before they were arrested.)
Many women lack basic literacy skills, much less a GED or any substantive vocational training. Six in 10 women in our jails and prisons are women of color; persistent gender and ethnic discrimination, and racial profiling on the part of local police are such a regular part of life that many women I interviewed didn’t even think to comment on such experiences unless I specifically asked them, say, about an allegation of a police beating I came across in their records.
One of the most groundbreaking books to have ever been published on female incarceration was written by Kathryn Watterson. When Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb was first published in 1973, there were 7,730 women nationwide in jails, and another 15,000 women in state and federal prison. Watterson had hoped that sounding an early alarm about the nascent trends in women’s imprisonment (and the accompanying constitutional and human rights violations) would spur enough prison reform to change the tide. When she had the chance to update her book two decades later, in 1996, she reported with dismay that the overall number of incarcerated women was nearly 110,000.
Watterson’s sense of outrage at a situation gotten so completely out of hand is understandable. It’s a feeling I share as a journalist who has watched these numbers increase so dramatically throughout my life; even as serious crime rates have decreased over the past decade, prisons are bursting at the seams and state coffers are running dry.
These days, I expect to come across outrageous statistics related to our criminal justice system, but even I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the statistics I dug up for this article. As it turns out, since I finished my book in May 2007, the number of girls and women under correctional supervision hasn’t just inched up, as I would have expected, it has taken a giant leap. At the time I turned in my manuscript, there were roughly 203,000 women in jails and prisons. Now, there are more than 215,000 females, and those statistics only bring us up to mid-2007. Overall, there are now 1.4 million women and girls under some form of correctional supervision, compared with 1.3 million at the time I finished my book.
All within the space of 18 months.