Female Felons: Crimes Are Light, Lives Are Dark

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A dramatic new study of female drug offenders in Pennsylvania provides rare insight into women who run afoul of the nation’s war on drugs.

In "Some Days are Harder than Hard," attorney Amy Hirsch paints a portrait of a typical female drug felon as a victim of childhood sexual abuse who got caught with $5 to $15 worth of drugs and found drug treatment for the first time in jail.

In one indication of the nation’s rising concern about women offenders, President Clinton last week granted clemency to four women who had served long sentences for relatively minor drug offenses.

Approximately 61,000 women were convicted of felony drug offenses in state and federal courts in the U.S during 1996, according to the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In addition, the number of women in prison has quadrupled since 1980, to 80,000 in 1997, a fact many experts attribute to the nation’s get-tough attitude toward drug offenders. However, women still comprise less than 10 percent of all prisoners and in-depth studies of their lives are scarce.

"The war on drugs has resulted in an incredible explosion in the population of incarcerated women, at great public costs," says Vicki Zubovic, spokesperson for the Women’s Prison Association. "The study shows that these women tend not to be a threat to public safety and we could be dealing with them through community-based programs. We don’t need to lock these women up."

Based in Philadelphia, Hirsch conducted in-depth interviews with 26 female drug offenders in jails, treatment programs and halfway houses to determine the impact on them of a 1996 federal welfare law barring them from ever receiving food stamps or federal cash assistance. One study reported that 21 percent of all welfare recipients in drug treatment programs had felony drug convictions. The Hirsch research was funded by the Soros Foundation.

Her interviews took her beyond her original question, however, and the resulting report provides a startling window on the lives of women dependent on illegal drugs.

Hirsch’s interviews revealed such a lack of drug treatment programs that of the 26 women interviewed, 17 didn’t receive treatment until they were jailed. Only two of the women had heard about treatment through government agencies.

"Women plead guilty just to get into this program," said one criminal justice staff person at an institution with a treatment program. He added that women testified that they had intended to sell their drugs, even when caught with an insignificant amount, so that they would be eligible for a government treatment program.

Two women told Hirsch that they had asked the judge for longer sentences so they could get more treatment.

"Many of their stories are very hard to hear," Hirsch said.

The offenders told her of preferring jail to living with a violent father, of suffering miscarriages after being thrown down stairs and of taking tranquilizers before going to sleep to calm fears of being molested in their beds.

Hirsch found that of 26 women interviewed, 21 said they were battered as children, adults, or–in most cases–both. Two others, when asked if they had ever been abused, replied: "I don’t want to talk about it."

Her findings are in line with a recent national study finding that 57 percent of women in state prisons had been physically or sexually abused.

Of the 26 women, one said she used drugs as recreation; others cited emotional and physical pain as their motivations.

Self-medication began early, Hirsch found. Of the 26 women interviewed, 21 began using drugs in their childhood and teen-age years. Ninety percent of those said they used drugs in the context of severe abuse.

"I was afraid to go to sleep at home, because my mom’s boyfriend came in and messed with me," said one offender. She started taking Valium when her mother didn’t respond to her complaints. "I thought if I could just go to sleep. I only felt safe sleeping at school. So I went to sleep at school every day, and they yelled at me."

The offender reported no school official asked her why she slept during the school day.

Hirsch also asked the other 25 women if anyone had helped them at the time of their abuse.

"They just looked blank or startled at the idea that someone could or would have helped," she reported. Also, Hirsch quotes a county jail staff member talking about one particularly egregious example.

The prisoner’s parents "don’t understand how she could have used drugs," he said. "They don’t understand how much physical and emotional pain she was in. She had broken ribs, broken arms. I would have written prescriptions for myself too."

Hirsch concluded her study by saying that the overwhelming consensus of the professional drug treatment, public health and criminal justice staff whom she interviewed was that denying women food stamps does not prevent drug usage or sales. She added that none of the women interviewed even knew about the law before they were convicted.

As for her original question about the deterrent effect of the law banning them from federal welfare programs, Hirsch asked each woman whether the threat of losing cash aid and food stamps would have made a difference.

All but two of the women looked at Hirsch incredulously.

One went on to patiently explain that even one of the most profound human emotions could not have prevented her drug abuse.

"If my daughter didn’t, nothing would."

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