Women jailed for drug offenses find telling their stories helps them stay clean, free

Last modified: Monday, February 08, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — There has been a growing push both in Massachusetts and in other parts of the country to revise laws that demand mandatory minimum prison sentences for many drug offenses, even for possession of minor amounts of substances.

Opponents say those rigid kinds of rules don’t help drug abusers get the treatment they need, leaving them likely to repeat their crimes once they’re out of jail.

On Sunday in Northampton, some of those opponents spoke about the issue from a unique standpoint: eight women who had once been incarcerated for habitual drug use shared their stories in original essays, poems and dialogue at a forum at the Lander-Grinspoon Academy.

The women were members of Voices from Inside, a program that offers writing workshops, leadership training and public speaking opportunities for women from western Massachusetts who have been, or are, in prison.

Sunday’s program, hosted by the Jewish social activist group Bend the Arc, also featured remarks from state Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton, a lead sponsor of a bill to revise mandatory minimum sentencing and redirect money and energy to drug treatment and job retraining programs.

Eldridge said public sentiment in the state is very much behind the joint House and Senate bill — state Rep. Peter Kocot of Northampton is one of many co-sponsors — to eliminate mandatory minimums.

“Eighty percent of Massachusetts voters think addicts should be given treatment, not jail time,” he said. “The public, if you will, are ahead of the politicians.”

That was clearly the abiding sentiment of the 50-odd people who gathered at the Lander-Grinspoon Academy. The eight women from the Voices from Inside program all received generous applause when they took turns speaking of their experiences, whether in detail or more indirectly through their writing. They wore shirts that read “My Greatest Secret I Keep on a Piece of Paper.”

Kimberly Ingram said she’d spent some 24 years in and out of jail because of drug addiction, and she’d also had her children taken away from her. “All I wanted was to die or get high,” she said, noting that she’d been raised in a family of “drunks and dope fiends” in which her mother had neglected her and some of her mother’s boyfriends had molested her.

Clean and sober for the last four years, Ingram said she wondered how she might have fared if she’d had access to treatment and programs like Voices from Inside earlier in her life, which she said has given her much better self-confidence and a means of self-expression she didn’t think she’d ever have.

“I will say this,” she noted. “I will never be back on the streets again.”

Other members of the program related stories of longtime problems with mental health, broken families and other issues that led them to turn to drugs. Olga Padraza, who is from the Springfield area, said she suffered from seizures that prison authorities treated by putting her in solitary confinement without her clothes.

“Today, I’ve changed my life,” she said. “I was desperate to change, and I was forced to change” in jail. It was actually better for her in prison in some ways than being on the streets, Padraza noted, as she began getting regular meals and access to a shower for the first time in a while.

But, she asked, what if she’d been able to get treatment for her mental illness and other problems earlier in life? “There are barriers in a lot of communities, barriers that break down along race, class and economic lines.”

Eldridge agreed, saying that though people of color represent only 20 percent of the state’s population, they represent about 77 percent of the people jailed under minimum mandatory sentences. The new bill, which includes a provision known as justice reinvestment, aims to take money saved from ending that and putting it toward job retraining, particularly in poor sections of cities, he said.

The savings could be substantial, Eldridge added: It costs about $45,000 to $50,000 annually to “warehouse” each of the roughly 1,000 prisoners in the state currently under mandatory minimum sentences.

Eldridge also said he became involved in the issue several years ago after one of his constituents told him her daughter had been given a 15-year sentence for drug possession merely because she’d been present and had drugs on her person when police raided a house where her daughter’s boyfriend was selling drugs. The boyfriend, with better legal representation, got just a two-year sentence.

“That’s not right,” said Eldridge. “We need to change some of these draconian laws.”

He noted, though, that many district attorneys oppose any changes, saying the streets are safer with drug users and sellers behind bars.

People like Lisa Peck, one of the women from Voices from Inside, would disagree. Peck related a childhood that began with two drug-abusing parents and led her to multiple foster homes and eventually her own drug problem — and then jail time. If she’d had access to something like the Voices program earlier in her life, she said as her own voice broke, things might have happened differently.

But today, Peck said, she’s sober and free and has a renewed sense of purpose from being part of the writing program: “It’s taught me what I say does matter, no matter what someone else thinks.”


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