Women Failing to Achieve Success After Prison

What’s happening nationally?

Mass incarceration is a persistent and debilitating problem in the United States, affecting fiscal and social well-being at national, state, and local community levels across the country.  According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics article published in 2013, an estimated 2.2 million people are incarcerated at a cost of $5 billion dollars per year.   From the website of The Sentencing Project, we learn that the United States leads the world with its current incarceration figure of 2.2 million people combined in the nation’s prisons or jails. The Sentencing Project calculates that this is a 500% increase over the past thirty years.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of the state prison population will reenter society, and each year the US Department of Justice estimates that more than 650,000 people will return to our communities.  In recent years across the country, annual state correctional expenditures topped more than $50 billion dollars  – nearly three times the $17 billion dollars spent in the early 1980’s.  A handful of states spend more discretionary dollars on corrections than higher education.

What about women?

The number of women in prison increased by 587% between 1980 and 2011.

Including women in local jails, more than 200,000 women are now incarcerated.

The number of women in prison increased at nearly 1.5 times the rate of men from 1980 to 2011.

A study by the Center for Effective Public Policy for the National Institute of Corrections cites well known clinician and researcher, Stephanie Covington, who states that:

“Women’s most common pathways to crime are based on survival of abuse, poverty and the combination of substance abuse and mental illness.”I Used To Be Someone

The relationship between these three factors is complex, requiring comprehensive and coordinated support so that receiving support does not place additional burdens on these women. Such support is almost non-existent for most women coming out of jail or prison.

Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are all very common in the lives of women offenders and can be the source of a substance abuse problem. These women use drugs to self-medicate the pain of abuse. Abuse can also be the result of involvement in a lifestyle that revolves around substance use, such as having an intimate relationship with a substance abuser who also commits acts of sexual or domestic violence.

Many women are driven to the drug trade by poverty, or become involved in prostitution– often following a history of sexual abuse—that then leads to substance abuse and vulnerability to further physical and sexual abuse.

“In other words, violence in the lives of women prior to their involvement in the criminal justice system is often connected to the criminal behavior with which they are charged.”

Most women who enter prison are in poor health as a result of lifestyles that damage their bodies, and poverty and histories of abuse prevent them from seeking and receiving the help they need. Of all the health issues that women bring to prison, substance abuse is probably the most common, in combination with other mental and physical health problems. Substance abuse cannot be addressed as an isolated problem.

What’s happening in Colorado and Boulder County?

If we focus on incarceration statistics related to Colorado and Boulder County, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections, 20,462 men and women are incarcerated in state public and private facilities at an average cost of $30,374 dollars per year, and 750 people are released each month. Ninety-five percent of people incarcerated will be released to local communities.

At the county level, Boulder County Sheriff, Joe Pelle, reports that the Boulder County jail, originally built to house 287 offenders, today holds nearly 500 offenders. Since 2010, the Boulder County Jail’s average length of stay has increased by 14 percent and the total yearly bed days used has increased by almost nine percent. The jail is well over capacity and that trend is not expected to turn around any time soon. The total annual cost to Boulder County taxpayers to operate the jail averages $17.5 million dollars per year.

As if the sheer numbers of people incarcerated nationally and locally aren’t overwhelming enough, Division Chief Bruce Haas, who manages the Boulder County Jail, estimates that approximately 35 percent of offenders are diagnosed with Axis I mental illnesses. Axis I refers broadly to a principal disorder that needs immediate attention, such as a major depressive episode or schizophrenia. County Sheriff Joe Pelle says: “Jails and prisons have now become the largest in-patient mental health facilities in the country, and 30 to 40 percent of the inmates in jails and prisons have serious, diagnosed mental illnesses.”

While Boulder County has not formally collected and reported recidivism statistics, the National Institute of Justice published that within three years, approximately two thirds of released offenders are rearrested.

The Colorado Department of Corrections reports that the recidivism rate, or the rate at which an offender returns to prison within a three-year period, is 49 percent.

There are many factors that lead to people returning to prison at such a high percentage. Many do not have access to the support they need not only the day of release but in the first few months of release. Many leave the facility with no money, transportation, identification, clothes, food, access to basic hygiene items, or most importantly, housing. Up to one third of people released from incarceration will be released homeless. In the Boulder County Jail, some estimate that up to 75% of offenders are homeless before coming into the jail.

In 2013, the Denver Post lists Colorado as one of the worst states in the nation for parolees, with roadblocks to employment, public assistance, housing and obtaining a driver’s license. The Denver Post investigation found that in prison and on parole, many offenders often don’t receive treatment for substance abuse or mental illness or participate in programs focusing on life skills. Up to one third of parolees are homeless. At the state level, funds to transition inmates from prison to parole plummeted from $62 dollars per offender to $15 dollars, a 76 percent decrease. Roger Werholz, Colorado Interim Corrections Director, said that reducing sentences is not the solution. The solution is to prepare inmates for release. Only 824 offenders completed the reentry classes in 2015 through the Colorado Department of Corrections due to limited access.

Women offenders with mental health and addiction issues in the Boulder County Jail, whose sentences tend to be shorter than men, are not eligible for mental health counseling if they will not be in the jail longer than 45 days. If they have longer sentences, they can apply for help and are put on a waiting list. Many never receive help.

Community partnerships are essential to ensure that what, if anything, related to treatment is begun in the jail can be completed in the community; and/or what opportunities for treatment and programming are missed in the jail and can be compensated for in community-based programming.

What’s not working here?

In Boulder County, key leaders from the county, courts, police, mental health, housing and human services agencies have put in place progressive drug courts, jail programming, mental health diversion programs, employment training, and a highly regarded probation department. Even with these provisions, the lack of a comprehensive reentry vision and strategy for Boulder County and an organization to support it, has made progress on successful reentry and reduced recidivism difficult.

There is a lack of coordinated, reentry-focused strategic management of efforts between the cities, Boulder County and relevant non-profits. Because no one organization is charged with reentry, it makes coordination difficult. To the returning offender with no reentry plan or means of support, the process of reentry is overwhelming – emotionally, cognitively, socially, materially and physically. It is not a simple task to navigate alone the complicated system of service providers one must see for basic survival and mental stability, not to mention housing, employment and family unification.