Lois Ahrens: Jailing women comes at big cost

  • mactrunk

Published: 2/15/2018 9:16:00 PM
Jailing women comes at cost

My mission is to end the incarceration of women and girls. While this may seem impossible to some readers, I believe we must work toward this goal.

Community-based and community-run alternatives to incarceration is key to realizing this goal, most especially for women struggling with substance-abuse disorder. Another is ending money bail since more than half all women incarcerated in jails are there only because they are too poor to make bail.

For these reasons and more, I was distressed to read the Gazette editorial “Jail extends treatment to women” (Feb. 13), lauding the Franklin County sheriff for incarcerating women who are dependent on opioids. These days, it is constantly repeated that addiction should be viewed as a disease.

Nonetheless, women (and men) are charged with crimes stemming from their addiction, such as possession with intent to distribute, selling sex for money and theft, and end up in jail.

According to Susan Sered, senior researcher at Suffolk University’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, “There is no medical or scholarly evidence supporting the effectiveness of involuntary commitment for substance use issues.”

After reading the editorial, I called the Franklin County Jail to find out how many women are incarcerated there. The number on Feb. 13 was 14. Four of the women are sentenced. Ten are held pretrial, and therefore are convicted of nothing.

The average cost of incarcerating a woman at a jail in Massachusetts is $5,000 a month. Try to imagine what could be done in Franklin County for each of the 12 women for that amount: rent, food, transportation, child care, medical care and medication-assisted substance abuse treatment, counseling and more.

Perhaps readers will say that is way too much money to spend on women struggling with addiction. However, that is what is being spent but it is going toward the cost of running jails.

If we want to stop the cycle of addiction/jail/addiction/jail, let’s choose the more effective, long-term investment of well-funded, community-based treatment and finally end the criminalization of addiction.

Lois Ahrens


The writer is founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization based in Northampton.

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