Mothers in prison

The women's wing of the jail exhales sadness. The inmates, wearing identical orange uniforms, ache as they undergo withdrawal from drugs, as they eye one another suspiciously, and as they while away the days stripped of freedom, dignity, privacy and, most painful of all, their children.

"She's disappointed in me," Janay Manning, 29, a drug offender shackled to a wall for an interview, said of her eldest daughter, a 13-year-old. And then she started crying, and we paused our interview.

Of all America's various policy missteps in my lifetime, perhaps the most catastrophic was mass incarceration. It has had devastating consequences for families, and it costs the average US household US$600 (S$870) a year.

The United States has recently come to its senses and begun dialling back on the number of male prisoners. But we have continued to increase the number of women behind bars; two-thirds of women in state prisons are there for non-violent offences. The US now incarcerates eight times as many women as in 1980, and only Thailand seems to imprison women at a higher rate.

And the situation may well worsen under the Trump administration; the President-elect's nominee for attorney-general, Mr Jeff Sessions, has in effect defended mass incarceration.

The global capital for female incarceration may be in Oklahoma, which incarcerates 142 out of every 100,000 women, about 10 times the rate of low-ranking states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

One reason mass incarceration doesn't get fixed is that society regards felons with a mix of fear and contempt. In fact, the women should evoke sympathy; even more than male prisoners, they have been through the wringer.

I wouldn't argue that mass female incarceration is worse than mass male incarceration - they're both counterproductive - but the imprisonment of women has heartbreaking collateral damage, because women are disproportionately likely to be primary caregivers, and 60 per cent of US women in state prisons have children younger than 18.

"There's a devastating impact on the children," said Ms Amy Santee of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which supports an alternative to imprisonment for women. "They're put in chaotic homes, they're more likely to be sexually abused, they're more likely to be imprisoned themselves."

Research shows that prison routinely fails at helping women straighten out their lives - although it does mess up their children.

"I felt my life was going to repeat my mum's, and it did," said Ms Alisia Hunter, 37, who said her mother was imprisoned for financial offences while she was a child. She then ended up having a baby at age 16 by one of her father's buddies, and she soon began doing stints in prison for drug offences.

"Prison got me sober, but it didn't get me anywhere," Ms Hunter told me. Each time she went to prison, she would get clean, and then once out she would return to drugs.

She did try to get into a drug rehabilitation programme. But the state, while willing to pay to imprison her, was unwilling to pay for drug rehab except for the most serious addicts; she didn't qualify.

One reason mass incarceration doesn't get fixed is that society regards felons with a mix of fear and contempt. In fact, the women should evoke sympathy; even more than male prisoners, they have been through the wringer.

A quarter of women in state prisons reported having been sexually abused as children, one 1999 Justice Department study found. A different study found that 43 per cent of women in jails that were examined had serious mental health problems, and 82 per cent had drug or alcohol problems.

Ms Anessa Rabbit, 31, says she grew up in a family of addicts and was born with drugs in her system. I can't confirm her life story, but she told how she was molested by her father beginning when she was seven, began smoking methamphetamine daily when she was 11, moved in with a man when she was 13 and dropped out of school in the ninth grade.

Like many female felons, Ms Rabbit seems to have gotten in trouble because of a boyfriend who manipulated her into committing crimes.

"He always put me in the position of doing the dirty work," she said, speaking of a boyfriend who used to choke and beat her when he wasn't coercing her to commit crimes. She says they committed robberies and other offences, sometimes she at his behest; he ended up with a sentence of four years' probation and she faced a possible sentence of 26 years in prison.

Prosecutors often understand what's going on but threaten the women with long sentences (sometimes based on conspiracy laws) to get them to testify against their men. That's how the criminal justice system works, but when the women refuse to cave, they go to prison for many years - and the guys then drop them.

When men are in prison, they seem to get visits frequently from girlfriends, who also add money into their commissary accounts so they can buy small items and make phone calls. But the prisoners and social workers I spoke to said that when women are imprisoned, they get fewer visitors and their accounts are often empty.

Mass incarceration also has an abysmal record. Recidivism is high, and imprisonment breaks up and impoverishes families. A newly published study from the Russell Sage Foundation found that incarceration of a family member is associated with a 64 per cent decline in household assets, magnifying poverty and the race gap in the US. And the 2.6 million American children who have a parent in prison or jail pay an enormous price - which, as Ms Rabbit's story shows, isn't always necessary.

Ms Rabbit was diverted from prison to a model programme in Tulsa called Women in Recovery. (Ms Hunter is also in the programme.) It reduces the numbers of women in prison, saves money and has had remarkable success helping troubled women shake drugs and restart their lives.

It has a two-generation approach that works with the women and their children. The programme offers counselling, intensive support, coaching on budgeting and conflict resolution, and help getting high school equivalency diplomas, housing and jobs.

The upshot is that Ms Rabbit has now been clean of drugs for nine months - the longest since she was a young child - and has a job in a warehouse with some prospects for promotion. She has custody on weekends of her son, 12, and daughter, 11, and is trying to rebuild relationships with them.

Women in Recovery programmes last 17 months and cost US$19,700 on average; after that, the woman is in a job, and recidivism over the next three years is just 4.9 per cent. Without the programme, the state might imprison the women for years at a much greater cost - and end up with a much higher recidivism rate.

So if we want to reduce female incarceration, we have a solution in Tulsa that will also reduce crime and pay for itself.

I know some of you are glaring at this article and thinking: It's their own fault. If they don't want to go to prison, they shouldn't commit crimes!

That scorn derives partly from a misunderstanding of drug abuse, which is a central reason for mass female incarceration in the US (and a major reason for mass incarceration of men as well, although to a lesser degree). As Dr Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon-General, noted in releasing a major report this month: "It's time to change how we view addiction. Not as a moral failing but as a chronic illness." In short, we should think of drugs not primarily through the criminal justice lens, but as a public health crisis.

If you think all this is just coddling criminals, consider for a moment Ms Michelle Vavrick, 24. I can't independently verify her story, but her counsellors believe it, and it tracks what many other women in her position have experienced.

Ms Vavrick says she was raised in a chaotic and violent home with alcohol and drugs. Beginning at age seven, she says, a paedophile named Sean began picking her up at her house and taking her away to rape her on an almost daily basis. She responded by acting out, self-mutilating and becoming violent.

"At 10, I became uncontrollable," Ms Vavrick remembered. "Sean and his friends would shoot me with heroin so they could do what they wanted to me. Six of them."

Ms Vavrick self-medicated with alcohol and drugs, went through rehab programmes that didn't work and ran away at 18. She lived on a park bench, sold sex, connected with a gang and robbed people. "I was a big ball of anger," she recalled. "I couldn't stand being in my own skin."

Last year she was finally arrested for drug running and faced a sentence of 15 years to life. Fortunately, she was diverted to Women in Recovery, underwent intensive cognitive processing therapy - and transformed. She has now been clean for 10 months and is warm and hopeful. Instead of sitting sullenly in a prison cell, she works in a bakery, loves it, and hopes to run her own bakery some day.

At one point when I was interviewing her about her past, she began crying. Alarmed, I quickly apologised, but she shushed me up. "This is progress," she said, beaming through her tears. She wants to let herself feel again.

Reporting these kinds of topics is often tough: I see people stuck in cycles of poverty, drugs and incarceration, with their children often headed in the same direction. Even well-meaning help is sometimes rejected, for we humans have an astonishing capacity for self-destructive behaviour - just as society does, with policies like mass incarceration. That backdrop makes it exhilarating to see a programme like Women in Recovery succeed, and an individual like Michelle Vavrick blossom through it into a new future.

"I know how precious my life is, and I never want to stick a needle in my arm again," she said. "I want to live."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Mothers in prison'. Print Edition | Subscribe