The Criminalization of Addiction – Tamra Ryan, CEO Women’s Bean Project

One morning a couple of weeks ago, Jessie failed to show up for work. Up to that point her attendance had been good, so we called her home to check on her. In another work environment, this might seem unusual, but Jessie was working at Women’s Bean Project, a social enterprise that provides transitional employment to women from backgrounds of chronic unemployment and poverty. Jessie was more than halfway through the Bean Project’s nine-month program and had been doing well. She was working toward earning her GED, learning shipping and receiving skills and getting along well with her co-workers. There was no reason to expect that she wouldn’t graduate with basic job-readiness and life skills and move to a career-entry-level job in the community. It was a surprise, then, when she no-showed for work.

Jessie’s “home”–the place where Jessie lived–was a halfway house, or community corrections facility. After being released from prison she had landed there to begin her transition back into the community. She’d been living in the halfway house for several months and seemed to be doing well when they found heroin in her bag. A subsequent drug test confirmed that she had relapsed.

Immediately Jessie was swept up by her rule-breaking. She was placed on facility hold at the halfway house, which was why she hadn’t gone to work. Then, within the next couple of days, she was swiftly regressed back to prison.

What I know now is that Jessie suffered from anxiety. Through her employment at the Bean Project she was gaining confidence in her skills and her employability, which was allowing her to believe in herself and her abilities. But when an ex-boyfriend came back on the scene, Jessie’s relapse and self-sabotage were all but accomplished. He gave her access to something that would make her feel better, even if temporarily.

Jessie is now back in prison and we are unlikely to hear from her again. While she may not have access to drugs in prison, she will also likely not receive drug treatment. Instead, she will do her time and, at some point, start over again in community corrections, without addressing the underlying issues that led to her relapse. Jessie’s addiction and inability to cope with stressors have been criminalized. When she is released from prison she won’t be seen as a person who struggles with addiction, she will be seen as a felon, someone who broke the law and needed to be punished.

Employment is the key to breaking out of poverty and staying out of prison. But the stigma associated with addiction and incarceration works to increase the likelihood that a woman won’t be hired. A UC Berkeley Law School survey found that most employers either probably or definitely would not hire an applicant with a criminal record—regardless of the crime.

Up to 80 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed one year after being released from prison. The number one indicator of re-arrest is being unemployed in the year prior to the arrest.

Punitive drug and social policies, attitudes and prejudices make it extremely difficult for women to succeed. Who will be willing to give her a chance? Unfortunately, Jessie’s punishment won’t end when she is released from prison.

The time has come to address the underlying issue of addiction with treatment, not punishment, so that the potential of the individual is not wasted. If we continue to criminalize addiction, we will create barriers to employment that can’t be overcome. When we fail to provide felons with the tools they need when their incarceration ends, we ensure their continued marginalization.

– Tamra Ryan is the CEO of the Women’s Bean Project, a nationally-recognized social enterprise that provides transitional employment to women attempting to break the cycle of chronic unemployment and poverty. She was a speaker at TEDxMilehigh in June, 2013 and is the author of The Third Law, a book which highlights the societal obstacles and internal demons that must be overcome for these marginalized women to change their lives.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.