I met Jeannie in an RV park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Hers was the sun-burned face of an old woman with a friendly smile, bright blue eyes, and wild, faded red hair. We had a friendly enough chat as RV park neighbors do, passing the time exchanging stories about travel adventures and weather. Jeannie shared that she was from Iowa, travelling with her husband of 35 years and her blond Labrador. Jeannie is a breast cancer survivor.
As the sun set on my second night in the park, I heard a knock on my RV door – it was Jeannie. Against my mother’s pre-trip warning, I invited Jeannie to come in so we could chat. Sitting at my table, in low light and with soothing sounds of Diana Krall in the background, Jeannie just started talking. She told me that she was on the road with her husband who was a retired factory worker. She used to work as an elementary school bus driver. She told me that she loved her job and that she loved children, but that she never was able to carry a child to term. All of that was before she served six years at a women’s prison for a felony drug conviction.
A record number of women are being held in prisons and jails or on probation across the country — as many as 1.2 million women by some estimates. At a recent conference sponsored by the Brennan Center, Justice Action Network, and Google, Women Unshackled, Policy Solutions to Address the Growth of Female Incarceration, elected leaders Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) shared new federal legislative initiatives to address the particular challenges for incarcerated women.
With so many women under the jurisdiction of states, it was the remarks of Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin who captured the power of an executive. Governor Fallin, the self-described daughter of a social worker, outlined creative strategies that she has implemented to reduce incarceration of women and save the state millions of dollars. She discussed implementing deferred sentencing for low-level crimes, children’s visitation, job training and education, substance abuse and mental health treatment (especially dealing with issues of sexual assault and domestic violence), and training for judges and prosecutors. As Governor Fallin spoke, I was reminded of Jeannie’s story.
You see, Jeannie was introduced to crack cocaine by a co-worker one evening after the last child was dropped off. “I was addicted from that first time,” Jeannie said, as she looked at me with those intense blue eyes. She was not smiling. She told me how she exhausted her and her husband’s savings, how she stole from friends and family, how she sold herself for crack cocaine. I could not look away from Jeannie, even as my mind was racing to figure out why she was telling me her secrets.
Jeannie told me that she had tried to get help, but by then she had lost her job and it was too expensive even with her husband’s insurance. Then she described the moment that was her rock bottom. Desperate for money to buy her fix, she went into a convenience store late one rainy night. She waited until there was no one in the store except the older woman behind the counter. Jeannie went in and told the woman to put all of the money in the register into a paper bag. Jeannie had done this before at another store, so she was not afraid. The cashier complied and Jeannie left the store quickly, but she became distraught. Jeannie said she was crying inconsolably and found herself on a park bench with the money bag under her arm. She spent the night on the bench, drenched by the rain, crying and wondering how she had gotten to this point. She prayed, although had long since lost hope that anyone was listening.
The next morning Jeannie awakened, walked to the store that she robbed, and turned in the money. She never got her fix. Instead, she was caught, sent to jail, convicted and sentenced to prison. I asked Jeannie why anyone would just give money to an older white woman – she shook her head and smiled, “because the lady behind the counter thought I had a gun and I didn’t say I didn’t.”
Prison was tough, and Jeanine focused on just learning how to survive. She had never even had a parking ticket. It turns out that Jeannie was able to get substance abuse and mental health treatment in prison. She received some training in office skills, realizing even then that she would not ever be likely to work around children again. Jeannie was imprisoned quite a distance from her home, so her husband visited her infrequently. She was certain that he would not be there when she was released. Jeannie talked about how guilty she felt that her husband had to postpone his retirement, working overtime while she was in prison to replace the savings that had gone toward her cocaine habit.
When Jeannie was released, she was placed in a state-sponsored job (funded partially through the federal government) through the term of her probation. When the funding ran out, Jeannie lost her job. She would like to work for another 10 years or so before joining her now-retired husband. But after many attempts to apply for employment, she’s given up on work for now. Every time she has to tell a prospective employer that she’s a convicted felon, she gets turned down. Jeannie told me that she “really want(s) to work and be productive.”
Jeannie’s experience echoes that of thousands of women around the country. Imagine if Jeannie and women like her had the benefit of substance abuse and mental health treatment with a deferred sentence or as an alternative to prison? Imagine that Jeannie was placed in a prison near her home community so that her husband, friends and family could visit her regularly? Imagine that Jeannie received job training and reliable placement after treatment, outside of prison? Imagine if the judge who sentenced Jeannie could apply her training and expertise to the individual case, rather than having to comply with a mandatory sentence against the judge’s better judgment? Imagine if Jeannie applied for a job after she served her time and did not have to check a box identifying herself as an ex-felon on her job application?
These ideas are cornerstones of criminal justice reform efforts around the country, and when implemented are making a real difference in people’s lives. Fallin described the impact of one such initiative in Oklahoma:
“It restores hopefully their hope, they’re self-worth, and is certainly more cost-effective than the incarceration into our prison system,” she said. “And we believe it actually improves public safety, because you’re helping someone get back on their feet.”
We should take the lead of Governor Fallin and Sens. Harris and Booker to not only shine a light on solutions for Jeannie and other incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, but implement them.