Programs to Help Women with Addictions

The number of U.S. women dealing with drug addiction has skyrocketed over the past few decades, as has the female prison population, but there still are few addiction treatment programs designed to meet the specific needs of women, the North County Times reported Jan. 1.

California’s SISTER (Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery) program is one of about a dozen comprehensive treatment centers in the U.S. for incarcerated women with addictions; some states, meanwhile, operate entire “treatment prisons” designed to help addicted men, such as the Sheridan Correctional Center in Illinois.

The Women’s Prison Association reports the that female prison population in the U.S. rose 592 percent between 1977 and 2001, to 85,031 inmates. Most have been convicted on nonviolent drug charges with harsh mandatory-minimum sentences, the group noted; female drug offenders represent the fastest-growing prison population in the country.

Research shows that 70 percent of women in jails and 65 percent of those in state prisons are mothers of minor children, and 80 percent of the kids in foster care nationwide are children of prisoners. “We’re seeing cycles and generations of women who are addicted and in our jails. We see mothers and their daughters, sisters, cousins and maybe now their children who are in foster care,” said Elyse Graham, program manager of SISTER. “The cycle is continuing and that’s pretty disheartening.”

“Women have become the silent casualty of the war on drugs,” added Malika Saada Saar, executive director of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights.

A 2001 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment report concluded that residential treatment programs designed specifically for women yielded better-than-expected results in terms of reduced drug use, recidivism, and child health. But, “Many women say it’s easier to wind up in prison than to get treatment,” Saar said.

“Treatment programs are turning women away because they have children. Or they’re pregnant. And if they do go into a single adult program, they’re often unsuccessful because their children aren’t with them. So they spiral down further and eventually wind up behind bars.”