PROVIDENCE -- Mary Barr, a former cocaine addict, shook hands with two prison officials from the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institutions and thanked them for coming.
But as she walked away, Barr said, "I want their jobs to be obsolete."
Barr, who lives in New Jersey, has been arrested 41 times and imprisoned in three different states. Now she has overcome her addiction, and is lobbying to eliminate criminal sentences for drug users. Prison destroys women and their families, she said.
Cindy Drake, deputy warden of the ACI's women's division, and Teresa Foley, the ACI's rehabilitation coordinator, argued that prison can help drug users.
The women were part of a panel discussion on Thursday titled "In Harms Way: Women and the War on Drugs." The event was sponsored by Rhode Island Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a coalition of Brown and University of Rhode Island students who believe drug abuse should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal offense.
The speakers cited national statistics showing women are the fastest-growing, and least violent, segment of the nation's prison population. From 1995 to 2002, the number of female prisoners rose 5.2 percent, compared to a 3.5-percent increase among male prisoners.
Prison doesn't work, Barr said. Most drug offenders are released and re-offend. Their families suffer too, she said.
"Fifty percent of kids who have incarcerated parents wind up incarcerated or in an addiction," she said.
Barr's four children were taken from her when she admitted to authorities that she was a drug addict and needed help, she said.
"It left me with no anchor. It left me heartbroken," Barr said.
Drug treatment and education are the solutions, she said.
But Foley said some inmates have told her that jail saved them.
"They are grateful a lot of the time that they bump up against the law to stop them from their addictions," she said.
Like the rest of the nation, Rhode Island's prison saw a large increase in female prisoners in the 1980s when mandatory minimum drug sentencing was enacted. In the 1970s, the women were housed in a single trailer. Today, there are about 200 women spread out in several buildings at the ACI.
About 12 percent of the female prisoners are sentenced for drug offenses, 26 percent are there for violent crimes, and 59 percent committed nonviolent crimes, Drake said. Many of the nonviolent offenders were caught shoplifting and prostituting to pay for drugs.
The average age of the female inmates is 35.
Yet the number of female prisoners at the ACI has held steady at 200 since 1992, unlike the rest of the country, where the female prison population climbed sharply.
Drake and Foley attributed the plateau to intensive treatment programs and reentry planning at the prison.
"We learned to start with them on the day they are committed," Drake said.
Prison officials aggressively recruited drug-treatment agencies and social service agencies from outside the prison. Representatives from those groups meet with prisoners in the ACI and make plans for them after their release. The prison also offers treatment, education and mentoring.
"They would be in drug treatment all day, every day, if I could," Drake said.
The recidivism rate at the ACI is about 50 percent. Drake and Foley said the rate drops to about 33 percent among the female prisoners who participate in the programs, although they cautioned that the programs aren't old enough to accurately determine recidivism.
Barr commended the Rhode Island prison officials for their work, but still, she said women would be better off in treatment and with their families.
For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.