Increase in Female Inmates Linked to Opioid Crisis, Poverty

Lee Hays waited three hours in a holding cell deep inside the century-old Westmoreland County Courthouse in  Greenburg, Pa., before being brought into a first-floor courtroom.

Hays wore a white long-sleeved shirt under her dark-blue jail uniform as she sat next to her attorney in front of the courtroom railing. It was a week before Christmas.

The 57-year-old woman renewed the plea she had made for 22 months: Get me out.

The room inside the downtown Greensburg landmark had mostly cleared when her name was finally called. Hays stood before the judge. Her straight, light-brown hair fell to her lower back. A rose and vine tattoo marked her wrist. A few friends and her son’s girlfriend sat in the first and second rows, listening intently.

Her attorney suggested that the judge reduce the $500,000 bail that had kept her in the county jail on accusations of being part of a heroin trafficking ring.

“You’ll be heard in February,” the judge said.

Hays broke into tears.

“Love you,” her friends said as a sheriff’s deputy escorted her out in handcuffs. “Hang in there a little bit longer.”

Hays is part of a trend of more women being arrested and jailed in Westmoreland County and across the country.

Nationwide, the female jail population has swelled dramatically since 2000, when about 70,000 women were incarcerated at the mid-year mark, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

By mid-year 2014, that population had grown to nearly 109,000 women locked up in county or municipal jails.

Two years later, according to the most recent data available from BJS, the figure had decreased slightly to 102,000; but that tally was from the end of 2016 when a prison population is typically lower than during the middle of the year.

The Westmoreland County Prison has seen a similar influx.

In 2008, the county lockup in Hempfield saw 824 commitments of women. By 2017, jail officials took in 1,269 — a 54 percent increase. During the same time period, the number of men committed increased 3.5 percent, from 3,440 to 3,560.

“The fact that there’s a 50 percent increase of females is very concerning,” said Judge Christopher Feliciani, who hears criminal cases and helps run the county drug court that started in 2015.

Many county officials were hesitant to point to a specific reason driving such a sharp increase in the number of women locked up locally, citing a lack of hard data. The Westmoreland County Clerk of Courts office does not track the types of offenses charged against female inmates, and the county Prison Board does not break down annual figures on top charges for jail inmates by gender.

Some speculate the increase is the result of the ongoing drug epidemic, whether women are getting hooked or engaging in criminal activity to support their habit.

Since 2015, retail theft and possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia were the top three most common charges for which an inmate was committed to the jail, according to prison board reports.

People who are addicted to prescription opioids or heroin are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system, according to a study published last year in JAMA Network Open. As the person’s addiction progressed, so did their involvement, researchers found.

“It’s been going up,” said jail Warden John Walton. “I attribute it to the drugs.”

Lower Pay, Higher Burden

About half of incarcerated women in the United States are in local jails. Sixty percent of women in local jails in 2018 were there pretrial, meaning they had not been convicted, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

One reason could be the fact that women earn less than men, making it less likely they can afford to post bail, said Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the group based in Northampton, Mass.

A woman in jail who is unable to make bail has an average annual salary of about $11,000 prior to incarceration, initiative research shows.

“When a man is in trouble, it’s common for women to rally around them,” Bertram said. “But for women, it’s the opposite.”

It’s unusual for a woman to have bail set as high as Hays, who was one of eight people police arrested in 2017 and accused of being part of a large-scale distribution ring that brought at least 20 bricks of heroin into the county.

Only one other woman arrested in Westmoreland County in 2017 had a bail set equal to Hays’ bail.

“I didn’t know what to think,” she said of when a district judge set her bail at $500,000 — an amount she could never afford.

Being jailed has been a financial struggle. Friends and family are helping Hays pay bills and taxes and keep the heat on at her childhood home in Youngwood, Pa. Her business that once provided pressure washing and painting services is gone.

“I’m from right here, and I have a house and I have a business,” Hays said. “It’s not like I was going to take off.”

County records show that many women remain behind bars because they cannot afford bail — even ones set at low amounts.

Of all women jailed in Westmoreland County in 2017, 426 — or about a third — couldn’t post bail at the time of their arraignment, a Tribune-Review analysis showed. Of those, approximately 300 received a bail amount of $10,000 or less for mostly nonviolent offenses — including half who were accused of possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia.

Regardless of bail amount, three-quarters of them remained behind bars because they couldn’t afford to post bail, records show.

Experts said low bail amounts can be out of reach for some who get arrested.

“$10,000 might be like $5 million,” said Brittnie Aiello, an associate professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. She researches maternal incarceration and punishment by gender.

Mothers Behind Bars

In addition to earning less than men, many women also have added burdens of providing for children.

“A lot of these women are single parents; they don’t have expendable cash,” chief public defender Wayne McGrew said. “These could be women that are just coming into their first time of being involved in the criminal justice system just because of the drugs.”

Experts say the majority of women in jails are mothers, and many have experienced some kind of trauma or abuse and mental illness, more so than male offenders, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics research.

“Women are required to go back and be mothers,” said Tom Plaitano, member of the Westmoreland County Criminal Justice Advisory Board.

“That’s an added burden on them.”

An estimated 80 percent of woman jailed in 2018 to be mothers, with U.S. jails expected to house 150,000 pregnant women last year, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated.

From Jan. 1, 2016, to Oct. 30, 2018, there were 13 instances in which a child was transferred to custody of the county Children’s Bureau after the mother was incarcerated, according to bureau statistics. Between 2013 and 2018, the jail housed 190 pregnant women, many of them addicted to heroin, Walton said.

Incarcerated mothers have fewer resources than male counterparts and can face a tougher road when they get out, Aiello said.

“You have to rebuild your life, which is a huge uphill battle … and the kid’s life, too,” she said.

Jillian Jensen knows what that’s like.

The 31-year-old mother was once an inmate at Westmoreland County Prison. She later worked there as a certified recovery specialist, visiting the jail for 18 months to hold group sessions for men and women.

While everything changes when you wind up in jail, Jensen said the negative experience can be used as an opportunity to reach women while the burdens of daily life — kids, work, home — are on hold and feelings that may have been repressed flood in.

Her time behind bars forced Jensen to address her drug addiction and start to get clean.

“Being incarcerated saved my life. Having that fear of going to prison for five, 10 years scared me,” said Jensen, now a stay-at-home mother of three. “I think women need empowered … to know that they’re worth more than this lifestyle.”

Breaking the Cycle

During her prolonged stay at the county jail, Hays has seen the same women cycle in and out.

“They’re in here, they seem like they want to do good,” but when they get out, they run from drug rehabilitation or don’t finish it and end up back in jail, Hays said.

“I don’t know that these people have the structure of a job and going to work and feeling good about themselves.”

The county would like to start a re-entry program for inmates, though officials continue to search for funding after being denied for an earlier grant. Such a program could offer services — vocational training, transportation, drug and alcohol treatment and life skills — to select inmates inside the jail and after they are released.

The idea would be to reduce rates of people being incarcerated again and help them better their lives, said Plaitano, who is on the steering committee for the Pennsylvania Re-entry Council.

An easy way to reduce prison population is by changing the cash bail system for certain offenses, such as misdemeanors and other nonviolent charges, advocates say. There are people who can be released and others who are violent and should be jailed, said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute.

“There’s nothing about sitting in jail … that improves your life outcome,” she said.

The county’s drug treatment court has succeeded in getting high-risk, high-need people out of jail while they work through the program, coordinator Eric Leydig said. Between September 2015 and November 2018, 190 men and 147 women applied to the program — with 66 men and 50 women accepted, Leydig said.

“We try to make jail priority cases,” he said.

Hays tries to stay busy while awaiting her Feb. 25 plea hearing.

She works at the library once a week and mends clothes, sheets and blankets for a couple of hours each day. She attends a nondenominational Bible study and church service every week. While inside, she earned a high school equivalency certificate — even though she said she already had one from the 1970s.

Prior to her drug arrest two years ago, Hays spent time in jail on work release in the early 2000s on a drunken-driving charge and a couple of years before that in a state prison for an aggravated assault charge, according to court records and her recollection.

Renatta Sikgnorini

Renatta Signorini

Now, she just wants to see her two children and three grandchildren again.

“I miss them a lot,” she said, crying.

This is a slightly edited version of an article written by Renatta Signorini, a staff writer for the  Tribune-Review, as part of her project for a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellowship. Read the full article here. 

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