The opioid crisis is taking a growing toll on America’s women, as addiction has fueled a sharp spike in the number of women incarcerated in the country’s prisons. Women such as Krystle Sweat from Campbell County, Tennessee, have been driven to a life of crime by debilitating addiction. According to The Associated Press, Sweat, a 32-year-old mother who has been arrested more than two dozen times for robbery, driving violations, and other crimes, is confined to her cell 23 hours a day and hasn’t been allowed to hug or even touch her now 10-year-old son Robby in more than three years. Instead, the two are forced to communicate via a video screen from opposite ends of the county jail.
In Campbell County, an impoverished former tobacco and coal industry stronghold, opioids are being prescribed to locals by doctors at a rate more than five time the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The surge of legally-prescribed drugs has led to a thriving black market, as doctors prescribe enough opioids yearly to keep the county’s entire population medicated 24 hours a day for nearly four months. Lawsuits are pending against pharmaceutical companies that local politicians say have made backroom deals with doctors and flooded the county with opioids — but in the meantime, the local prosecutor says, 90 percent of crime in the county is now connected to drugs. Women are the fastest-growing prison population in America — between 1980 and 2009, the rate of incarceration for women has tripled.
For women addicted to opioids, there is often little support. There are twice as many residential treatment programs in Tennessee for men as there are for women, and none at all in Campbell County. Experts say that women face condemnation for raising children while dealing with their drug addiction, and are often shamed for abandoning their children when they do choose to seek treatment. Many addicts are also victims of abuse, and single mothers who are afraid of losing access to their children altogether.
One drug-offender named Blanche Ball, who had to give two children up for adoption after they were born addicted to methadone, said that she’s unable to stop thinking about her children while in prison, and that she has nightmares in which her 3-year-old son becomes a doll broken into pieces.
“I know I could have done something more with my life,” said Ball. “Once you’re like this for so long, you don’t know another way to be.”
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