TULSA, Okla. — 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.
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 U.S. household $600 a year.
The U.S. has recently come to its senses and begun dialing 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 nonviolent offenses. The U.S. now incarcerates eight times as many women as in 1980.
And the situation may well worsen under the Trump administration; the president-elect’s nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has in effect defended mass incarceration.
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 percent of U.S. women in state prisons have children younger than 18.
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 percent of women in jails that were examined had serious mental health problems, and 82 percent had drug or alcohol problems.
Mass incarceration also has an abysmal record. Recidivism is high, and imprisonment breaks up and impoverishes families.
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 U.S. As Dr. Vivek H. 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.”
Consider for a moment Michelle Vavrick, 24.
Vavrick says she was raised in a chaotic and violent home with alcohol and drugs. Beginning at age 7, she says, a pedophile 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.
Vavrick self-medicated with alcohol and drugs, went through rehab programs 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.
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 hopeful. She works in a bakery, loves it, and hopes to run her own bakery some day.
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. We humans have an astonishing capacity for self-destructive behavior — just as society does, with policies like mass incarceration. That backdrop makes it exhilarating to see a program like Women in Recovery succeed.