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Women & Incarceration

March 27, 2018

LWV Forum Addresses Women And Incarceration

From left, Helen Aldredge, Christina Martinez, and Cheryl Peterson-Jacquez at the LWV forum.

Cheryl Peterson-Jacquez thought she was on the right track – a woman with a college education who traveled the world, had a $50,000-a-year job and the perfect two-child family.

But that all changed when she became trapped in the jaws of addiction.

“Drug addiction can happen to anybody,” said Cheryl at a panel discussion held by League of Women Voters of Bucks County in February at the Doylestown Free Library. “I am a long-term addict and now beginning my 10th year of recovery.

“In my 40s, I tried cocaine for the first time ever and I never believed that would lead to an addiction. Four years later, active in that addiction, I was arrested in a school zone for delivering $20 of crack cocaine to an undercover agent.”

One decision resulted in five different felonies and landed her in state prison.

Cheryl was one of four women who discussed healthcare, sentencing and challenges of re-entry for incarcerated women at the LWVBC forum.

In Bucks County, women make up 10% of the incarcerated population and that number is steadily increasing, tripling between 1985 and 1995, according to the Bucks County Task Force.

Most of their offenses are nonviolent, usually involving drugs.

Many women find themselves incarcerated due to mistakes made in the clutches of addiction, said Christina Martinez, one of Cheryl’s colleagues who spoke at the panel.

“I was four months pregnant and using when I was locked up,” said Christina. “I had been in and out of jail, on the run every time and it was impossible to stay clean. I already had a habit and I couldn’t stop using (when I got pregnant).

“That’s how insane it is to be an addict – the drug completely takes over everything you’ve ever cared about. Think about how much you love your children – it takes over that.”

During her time in jail Christina noticed all the pregnant women who were incarcerated, all of whom had their babies taken away 48 hours after giving birth.

About six percent of women in Pennsylvania are pregnant when they enter correctional facilities and 2,000 babies are born to incarcerated women every year, according to the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

“There are drug courts and DUI courts and veterans courts,” said Christina. “I want a maternal court. Where these women have a certain part of jail where they would be able to keep their baby, bond with their baby…(and breastfeed).”

Cheryl and Christina both said they experienced horrible medical conditions while imprisoned.

“I’ve seen people sit there for months without going to an outside specialist and end up dying in prison,” said Christina. “This happened twice while I was there.”

Without a separate medical unit, mental health unit, or restricted housing unit for women, all female inmates must be housed together and can be exposed to mental or physical illnesses.

Helen Aldredge, another panel speaker, witnessed the surprising lack of support for convicted women during her career as a nurse in both state and county jail.

“Working in a women’s prison is probably harder than working with the men because (women) are neglected,” said Helen.

“‘Women don’t go to prison,’ so we don’t have to find a care program for them. (I believe) there’s so much we could do, we just have to start small.”

The most important thing now, she says, is to spread the word about conditions inside prison.

Both Cheryl and Christina also became advocates for women who have otherwise lost their voices behind prison walls.

Many women who re-enter society turn to old habits and become trapped again in the throes of addiction.

“You have no coping skills besides running to drugs, you have no job skills, you have nothing and life becomes overwhelming,” said Christina.

Christina was released when her baby was three months old but missed the first smile and so many moments she could never repeat.

She overcame her addiction, earned her bachelor’s degree and co-founded Open Arms Recovery Center, an outpatient substance abuse counseling center where Christina is a facility director and also counsels pregnant and postpartum women.

“I want to help every woman who lost her kids due to drugs and now made a change,” said Christina. “Just because we’re addicts doesn’t mean we don’t love our children…. Everyone can change if they choose to.”

When Cheryl served time in state prison, she was given access to a program which helped her recognize the affects drugs have –mentally, physically, socially, emotionally, environmentally – and to explore why her addiction happened.

“When you heal the reason, you’ll be less likely to relapse,” said Cheryl. “Probably 75% of women in addiction have been affected by some sort of trauma in their lives.

“I personally feel there needs to be more focus on programs they offer (in prison) that get at the core of that reason – help with healing.”

Cheryl supports currently incarcerated women through her one-on-one mentorship program as well as her ‘Closet to Career’ nonprofit in York, Pennsylvania.

Sixty-five women have participated in her program and Cheryl is actively seeking interested mentors as well as clothing donations for incarcerated women.

“I wouldn’t be who I am today without the experiences I’ve had, and I’m grateful for every single one,” said Cheryl. “I truly believe that offering these women someone who believes in them means the difference between relapse or reoffending and a successful future.”

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