From Hardship To Healing

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From Hardship To Healing

The Complicated Journey Of Women Incarcerated At Rikers Island

“I’m so tired of the system. Juvenile detention to adult prison … All those years behind bars, but I never got the help I needed.” ― Annie

The “help” for which Annie – and hundreds of women like her – so desperately yearned was treatment for her addiction to alcohol and heroin. Many women also experience depression, anxiety and other types of mental illness. And nearly all have experienced some form of trauma, either as a single or series of events, e.g., death of a child, divorce, job termination, abuse, etc. All of which creates the perfect breeding ground for substance use, homelessness, psychiatric disorders and encounters with the criminal justice system. Incarceration itself can lead to further re-traumatization.

As the former Chief of Addiction Medicine for NYC jails, including the infamous Rikers Island, I had the opportunity to meet women like Annie who found themselves in a situation they neither expected nor asked for. But their stories helped put things into perspective. As a society, we often perceive incarcerated individuals, aka “criminals,” as bad people. “They committed a crime, so they deserve to be punished.”

But I’ve come to learn that life is rarely this simple. What is life but a series of circumstances – births, deaths, graduations, accidents, promotions, suicide? How we respond to these life events varies by individual, and is heavily influenced by genes and environment. And when that environment is an intimidating jail complex where inmates have no freedom, are victims of violence – by fellow inmates or correction officers – and recipients of innumerable other indignities, the pain and anguish can be unbearable. Some of the stories I’ve heard are harrowing.

“I started using at 13. Whole family used,” Georgia remarked, looking me straight in the eye. Gently tugging at her cream-colored Department of Correction-assigned uniform with her left hand while nervously adjusting her disheveled auburn hair with her right, Georgia continued. “I didn’t know how to deal with the pain, so I used. My uncle raped me when I was a kid. I sold my body for money, for drugs. Anything to take the pain away.”

Stories like Georgia’s are heartbreaking but sadly not uncommon at Rikers. The multiple biopsychosocial factors resulting in incarceration are tightly entangled for this invisible and yet growing population of women.


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