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Drug-Related Charges Spark Rise In Female Incarcerations

The number of women in Indiana prisons has increased 50 percent in the past decade, mostly because of drug-related charges.

A door in the Howard County Jail.

Photo: Julie Rawe/WFIU-WTIU News

A door in the Howard County Jail designates the visitor waiting room.

This is the first of a three-part series on women in Indiana prisons.

At the Howard County Jail in Kokomo, assistant jail commander Robin Byers is making plans to tear down the jail’s indoor basketball court.

behind the wire interactive “This is the rec area that we’re going to convert,” she says. “We’re going to take down the basketball goal, obviously. And we’re going to put a TV up on the ledge.”

Jail officials are going to replace the basketball court with a dorm to give the jail more beds. Byers says it is not so much that the jail needs more space, but she says they need the renovation to make room for one particular group of prisoners.

“This is our female housing unit, and this holds 48,” she says, opening the door to the women’s block slightly. “So it’s a lot of females in there.”

The open room is packed with women wearing jail uniforms. The area can hold 48 people, but today there are 62 female inmates, and Byers says the daily female population has been hovering close to 70 for the past year.

How Drugs Play A Role In Female Incarcerations

Howard County Jail is a microcosm of what the state of Indiana has been facing. The number of women in the state’s prisons has risen by more than 50 percent in the past decade. Criminal justice experts say there are many reasons women land behind bars, but in many cases drugs are involved. 

I lost 462 days of my life to the Howard County Jail…I won’t ever get that back.

That is true in Howard County, where more than half of the women in the jail are locked up because of drug-related charges—everything from possession of a drug, to dealing it. But nearly everyone here is struggling with addiction issues whether or not that is the reason they were arrested.

“I lost 462 days of my life to the Howard County Jail because of it. I won’t ever get that back,” says Karen Fisher, who became addicted to prescription drugs. “In my instance, I was put on Xanax, by my doctor.”

The drug was supposed to help Fisher deal with her painful homelife and a past of abusive relationships. Then things got even more stressful when her mother died, leaving her in charge of her elderly grandmother and her finances.

“I shouldn’t have been over my own finances, let alone hers,” Fisher says. “At the end of the 2 years when they do the audit to see where the finances were, I couldn’t account for them. I got a theft charge—a C felony theft charge.”

After more than a year behind bars, Fisher was released. She says stories like hers, where drugs played a role, were common among other women she met during her stay at Howard County.

Reba Harris runs the Gilead House, an addiction treatment center down the street from the Howard County Jail. Harris and her staff go to the jail each week to help women with substance abuse treatment. She says the problem is not necessarily that more women are doing drugs. It is that more women are being caught for minor drug offenses.

“Prescription addiction years ago was pass a few pills and things of that nature back in ‘80 and ‘85,” she says. “But today if you have 2 pills on you, you have a possession charge. So what happened with this generation, I think they got caught up in the law changing.”

Laws That Are “Tough On Crime”

“Making things with stiffer penalties doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to do less crime,” says Mark Stoner, a Marion County criminal court judge. “If that were the case, given Indiana’s harsh penalty provisions, you would expect that we would have among the lowest crime rates and the lowest recidivism rates. That just quite simply hasn’t turned out to be true.” 

Making things with stiffer penalties doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to do less crime.

Stoner says some of Indiana’s strictest policies date back to an era when proposing “tough on crime” legislation was popular among lawmakers. Some of those laws outline mandatory sentences for certain drug offenses, and Stoner says that means the punishment judges are required to give doesn’t always fit the severity of the crime, which is something state lawmakers and even Governor Mitch Daniels are starting to realize.

“We are currently housing 7,000 or 8,000 more inmates than we were just 5 years ago,” Daniels said last year at a press conference about a Pew Research Center study on the state of Indiana’s criminal justice system.

Indiana does not have the largest prison count in the U.S., but it incarcerates a larger percentage of its population per capita than any other state.

The Pew study says that has a lot to do with Indiana’s one-size-fits-all theft and drug penalties. Stoner says when it comes to applying the laws in the thick Indiana criminal code book that sits on his desk, gender is not part of the consideration. But 25 percent to 30 percent of women sentenced to Indiana prisons in 2011 had committed drug offenses, meaning those policies seem to have hit women, and their families particularly hard.

Have questions about Indiana’s incarcerated women? Join Noon Edition’s hour-long conversation Friday by sending in your questions or comments to noon@indiana.edu.

Julie Rawe

Julie is Assistant Producer of Noon Edition. In addition to reporting for WFIU, she also works as an intern for NPR's State of the Re:Union. She is a graduate of Indiana University where she studied French, anthropology, and African studies.

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