Locked up means locked out: Women, addiction and incarceration

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


In one of the quietest but most significant social phenomena of our time, national statistics indicate that the number of incarcerated women has quadrupled over the last 20 years. The status of women of color in America, already precarious, is further eroded under this new world order, as 54% of the incarcerated female population is African American or Latina. Harsh drug laws, mandatory sentencing, and policing strategies which focus on smaller crimes have succeeded in netting large numbers of mothers, grandmothers, single breadwinners and other women whose primary offenses prior to arrest were being poor and often having a substance abuse problem. Once incarcerated, new difficulties are visited upon these women, including family dissolution, precipitous declines in mental health, and often loss of child custody as legal cases wend their way slowly through the system. The commonly reported statistic that 80% of all crimes committed have drug involvement holds true for women as well. Most women in prison are untreated substance abusers with high recidivism rates that correlate with greater addiction severity. Typically, each return to incarceration signifies a deeper level of addiction, with associated declines in health, employment opportunity, and social functioning. The quantum increase in incarceration for women is linked directly to drug and alcohol addiction, yet little has been done to address the issue. Many prison systems are ill equipped to handle the influx of women, from a variety of perspectives. County jails, historically designed to be shorter term holding areas for those with minor offenses or awaiting a state prison bed, are now handling many more female prisoners for much longer periods of time. Social, health, and substance abuse services for these women are grossly inadequate, if available at all. This chapter will address the double bind of addiction and incarceration that women face today in unprecedented numbers. It will discuss, via case study and review, the precipitous erosion of mental health and family functioning that typically occurs when substance abusing women are incarcerated instead of treated. The paper will discuss the national silence which has surrounded this very public epidemic, particularly regarding the country's discomfort and resulting inability to confront the debilitating effects of addiction and incarceration on women and families. Finally, this paper will discuss effective strategies for change, arguing that a first step must include an appreciation for the unique perspective and experiences that addicted women have and bring to a correctional environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)181-194
Number of pages14
JournalWomen and Therapy
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 10 Apr 2007


  • Addiction
  • Cocaine treatment
  • Double bind
  • Policing mental health of women in prison
  • Psychosocial effects of incarceration
  • Substance abuse
  • Trauma
  • Women and incarceration
  • Zero tolerance


Dive into the research topics of 'Locked up means locked out: Women, addiction and incarceration'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this