Women in prison: A growing epidemic - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Women in prison: A growing epidemic

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) -

By Doug Walker – bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) – In 1977, there were 11,000 women in prison across the country. Now, there are more than 100,000.

The Harrison County jail is home to an average of 140 women inmates every day. Almost all say bad choices led them to a life behind bars. But some say being in jail may be the best thing that ever happened to them.

"I believe that if I wasn't in here now, I would be been another victim. I would have been dead. I was that close," one inmate said. 

When I visited the female jail pod, I struck up a conversation with several inmates, a conversation that grew larger by the minute.  All had stories to tell.  None claimed their innocence.  Many did claim bad choices, including the worst choice of all, according to one inmate. 

"This drug meth is the devil's tool, a new tool for Satan that he can kill and destroy our families."   

While most of the women I talked to in the Harrison County jail are not here for violent or property crimes, there is one overwhelming reason why they are behind bars: Drugs.

One inmate said her life has been wasted. 

"You wake up 30 some years later and your whole life has passed you by." 

The faces of the inmates tell a painful story.  From those who have been in the system for years to others so young it's difficult to watch.  But there is always some gallows humor to make the day go by quicker.  Like one prisoner who pointed to her upper bunk bed and said,  "I've got a balcony apartment. Come see my balcony." 

Work also helps pass the time away. Evangeline Schwartz is part of a clean-up crew at the jail, spending the day tidying up the offices. She said there is no one to blame for being in jail but herself, and youthful indiscretions.   

"When I became a teenager and started hanging around the wrong crowd, that's when I started going the other way," Schwartz said.  "It wasn't family, it was my own decision." 

Another decision is to turn her life around to one that doesn't revolve around drugs. 

"Honestly, these last three months I've been here, I've been doing a lot of thinking, different thinking that I have not done in the past and I'm getting too old for this. So I think it's time for a change.  I need to rebuild my relationship with my children and my family that I've lost and it's time to do that." 

Anna Garibay also works on the clean-up crew, and believes her time behind bars is an educational experience.   

"Just encouraging each other, by reading. There are life skills programs, a church, very much of a lot of soul searching, self checks, and just understanding what you're here for."

Major Phil Taylor is the deputy warden at the jail.  The number of women going to jail these days is astounding.   

"It was almost a trickle 17 years ago, as opposed to now, like you say, it's mostly an explosion, mostly attributable to the increase in drugs and drug use." 

And Taylor, who spends time with the women prisoners every day, offering help and some sound advice, questions whether jail is the answer for many of these women. 

"There are not many treatment centers here," Taylor said.  "It's almost like there's a void in the system." 

But maybe the best treatment of all can be found behind bars.  That's what  Evangeline thinks.

"The emotional part of being in jail is rough because you do a lot of thinking.  You don't have the drugs or the alcohol to keep you awake." 

But Anna believes it's never too late to change for the better. 

"Learning yourself all over again I think is one thing jail teaches you." 

Here's another example of the growth in the number of women prisoners.  In 1977 in Mississippi, there were 57 females in prison across the state.  By 2004, that number was more than 1600.

Copyright 2010 WLOX. All rights reserved.

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