How One Rural Indiana Jail Deals with Its “Exploding”Female Population

With growing numbers of women incarcerated around the country, some local authorities are developing innovative programs to help ensure they never return once they’re released. Floyd County in southern Indiana opened a jail-based counseling unit this year that appears to hold promise.

Is there a better way to address the growing numbers of women who find themselves in jail?

One southern Indiana county has developed a program aimed at helping women—including those who have recidivated—gain the tools, skills and confidence to make their current stay behind bars the last one.

The program is the brainchild of Floyd County Sheriff Lt. Brett O’Loughlin and Michelle Cochran, a mental health worker contracted by the jail.

At the beginning of this year, the jail opened a separate block with room for 16 inmates who are committed to focusing on themselves, addressing their addiction issues, and supporting one another in their growth.

And some of the women inmates say it has already put them in the right direction.

“It teaches you how to change your thinking, which is where we all mess up,” said Heather Goff, who’s been in the Floyd County jail for almost a year and a half, and in the program for eight months.

“I was sober for nine years. Since I’ve been locked up, I’ve had time to reflect on where I went wrong and recognize how not to do it again.”

According to Cochran, the recent increase in the number of women in Floyd County jail — largely due to drug issues or drug-related crimes — makes it more important than ever to develop and maintain meaningful programming for them.

“So we started putting it together building a curriculum [with] evidence-based practice,” Cochran said.

The jail has recently been awarded a grant to expand the program to men; she said they started with the women because “that population seemed to explode in a very short amount of time.”

The women in the “program dorm” are given more freedoms and responsibility than those in the general block, and have access to more programming — like specialized classes and yoga.

Coordinators work with them to help hone in on the personal life issues that led to their brush with the law, and to help cut recidivism.

According to Lt. O’Loughlin, programs in other jails around the country are often limited to basics: 12-step program meetings or faith-based programs. While those can be useful, he said, they can lack the more personal focus the new Floyd County program offers.

“Every facility has some type of program, but it ends up being they try to cram everybody into that one-size-fits all,” he said. “They’re just spinning their wheels and the same people keep coming back.

“[This program is] not going to be a one-size-fits all. We’re going to throw everything we can at it and see what sticks.”

Each week, the women draw lots to see which jobs they’ll have for the week — they could serve as a mediator to help sort out interpersonal issues among the inmates, or they could facilitate weekly programming, enforce chores getting done or keep track of records within the program.

“This program means a lot to me because this is the first time that I’m addressing that I have a problem and I am an addict,” Mercedes Hall said. “And that means a lot to … my family. This is the first time in my life I’ve actually had structure and consistency.”

In Floyd County, the average daily female population has nearly doubled between 2007 and 2017 to 59 from 35, a rise that local law enforcement authorities attribute to the drug crisis that’s shaken Southern Indiana in the past several years.

The growth of the male inmate population has been more steady during that time in Floyd County.

Nearby Clark County law enforcement officials have seen similar growth, rising to an average daily female population of 131 in 2017, up from 56 in 2007.

Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel says the growth in numbers comes with challenges to spacing and increased health costs associated with women. On a recent day in Clark County, there were eight pregnant women in jail.

In 2016, Clark County initiated three new programs targeted specifically to address the needs of the growing female population.

A 12-week writing workshop, taught by local freelance journalist Amanda Beam, is designed to help women express themselves through written words. There is a separate group for women who are victims of physical, mental or sexual abuse, to help pave the way for them to become empowered survivors.

There’s also a pregnancy class for women who are, or believe they may be, pregnant.

“The more tools you can give an inmate, especially a female inmate, hopefully [means] they won’t return to jail and that’s what’s best for the family,” Noel said.


Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop says a new jail program started this year specifically for women gives them the chance to break through the old thought patterns and habits, to help prevent them from returning to jail. Photo by Aprile Rickert, News and Tribune .

In Floyd County, nearly all of the women in the program said they have been incarcerated multiple times, and most are currently in for drug-related charges.

“Even if their charge isn’t a drug charge, it’s usually drug-related,” program member Goff said. “Whatever they’ve done, it was to get drugs.”

Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop said the program can change the course of a woman’s life — to keep her from falling into the old ways before jail.

Often, they end up in jail again soon because “they go back to the same environment they had,” Loop said. “The same friends, because they don’t know anything else.”

Cassidy Miller’s story lines up with this.

Miller, who has been in jail multiple times, admitted she intentionally courted arrest because she knew she needed a change from the life she was living on the outside.

“I was doing everything right on the outside [but] everything was still screwing up,” she said. “I was very, very tired, and I knew I wanted something different.

“We’re all just tired of that life. We want something different and this is the first step to that.”

While some jail opportunities, like receiving a GED or other certifications can mean credit off of their sentence, this is not the case with the new Floyd County program.

Cochran, the mental health worker, said this helps ensure that everyone in the program is there because they want to be, and because they’re committed to doing the work.

Because the women are housed in a separate dorm, they’re not around the negative influences of others in jail who aren’t ready or don’t wish to try to change, Cochran said.

The program effectively begins as soon as the women enter the dedicated block.

“[We ask] ‘what are your goals, what are you going to do different, where are you going to be that’s safe when you leave here,'” she said.

Program participant Miller said living in the dorm creates a sense of solidarity and mutual concern among the inmates.

“In here, we call each other on our B.S.,” she said. “Or if we’re thinking something wrong or we’re down on ourselves, we check ourselves and each other because we care enough to see everybody do well.”

Another inmate, Joanie Watson, recently received a certificate for completing a class that she helped show her that progress was possible.

“It’s a confidence boost, even doing your homework is a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “Something little you accomplished and something bigger and it just builds up.”

But the hardest challenge may come when the inmates are released.

The county Sheriff’s Department and staff say they are working to increase partnerships with community organizations who will be available for continued post-incarceration health and addiction care.

“That’s how we’re going to prevent recidivism,” Cochran said.

Aprile Ricket

Aprile Rickert

“That’s how we’re going to keep them clean, keep them sober and keep them medicated.”

Aprile Rickert, a crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in the News and Tribune as part of her Fellowship project. Follow Aprile on Twitter: @Aperoll27. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Mother’s Day Behind Bars

The rate of growth for female incarceration has outpaced that of males by 50 percent since 1980–and over 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under 18, according to a fact sheet released Thursday by the Sentencing Project, ahead of Mother’s Day.

The rate of growth for female incarceration has outpaced that of males by 50 percent since 1980–and over 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under 18, according to a national advocacy group report released just ahead of Mother’s Day.

According to an updated fact sheet released by The Sentencing Project, the number of women and girls in detention ballooned from 26,000 to 213,722 between 1980 and 2016.

The incarceration rate of white women in state and federal prisons grew by 44 percent between 2000 and 2016, compared to 12 percent growth for Hispanic women; while the incarceration rate for African-American women fell by 53 percent during this time period.

See also: Treat Women Prisoners with Dignity, Texas Report Says

Incarceration rates– and conditions– vary dramatically throughout the states. Looking at 2016 alone, the states with the highest rates of female imprisonment were Oklahoma, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana. Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Maine were at the lowest end of the spectrum.

Women in state prisons are significantly more likely to have been detained for property or drug crimes than their male counterparts, according to the report.

And while 85 percent of incarcerated youth are boys, over 50 percent of youth incarcerated for running away are girls. Girls are also more likely than boys to be arrested for other low-level offenses such as truancy and curfew violations.

The report also found that Native American girls are incarcerated at four times the rate as white girls, at 134 per 100,000 versus 32 per 100,000. African-American girls were found to be incarcerated at a rate of 110 per 100,000.

The report also said Hispanic girls are 38 percent more likely to be imprisoned than white girls.

A study published by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in April found that over 81 percent of incarcerated women they polled were mothers. Over 58 percent reported having been sexually abused or assaulted as a child.

According to national studies, pregnant inmates are more likely to have complicated and higher-risk pregnancies than women in the general population,” wrote Lindsay Linder, author of the Texas study, noting that this results “in a higher numbers of stillbirths, miscarriages, and ectopic pregnancies.”

Women who responded to the survey say they had very little access to adequate health care; and some claimed their newborns were taken from them soon after birth.

This summary was prepared by Victoria Mckenzie, deputy editor of The Crime Report.


America’s ‘Forgotten Inmates’

The number of women in the correctional system has grown fourteen-fold since 1970, making them the fastest growing incarcerated jail population in the U.S. Almost all are poor and more than 80 percent are mothers. Yet the special challenges they face remain largely overlooked in jail reform efforts, a Vera Institute study reports.

Photo by JobsforFelonsHub via Flickr

Photo by JobsforFelonsHub via Flickr

Last month, video surfaced online of a district court judge in Kentucky going apoplectic over the condition of an individual who had been brought before her for arraignment.

The female defendant – who had been arrested three days earlier for failing to complete a diversionary program for a prior shoplifting offense – appeared to be wearing no pants. (She was actually wearing athletic shorts that were obscured by the hem of her shirt).

The young woman went on to explain, through her public defender, that she was menstruating and that during her stay at Louisville's Jefferson County Jail she had been denied feminine hygiene products. She also said the jail refused her requests for access to a shower or a change of clothing.

“Am I in the twilight zone?” the shocked judge, Amber Wolf, asked rhetorically. “This is outrageous. Is this for real?”

After placing a call to jail officials demanding an explanation, the judge apologized to the defendant and released her with a $100 fine.

“This is completely inhumane and unacceptable,” the judge said. “I'm sorry you had to go through this.”

Unfortunately, the circumstances revealed in Judge Wolf’s courtroom are all too common for female inmates in America's jails, according to a study released today by the Vera Institute of Justice.

The report, “Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” was underwritten by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge and provides a stark and long-overdue look at the plight of an ever-increasing number of incarcerated females.

The study is part of a $75 million effort announced last year by the MacArthur Foundation to reform America’s pre-trial detention system by supporting innovative strategies for reducing jail populations.

Among other things, researchers found that women in county lockup are routinely denied feminine hygiene products, lack adequate neonatal services, and rarely receive contraceptive and gynecological care while incarcerated.

Liz Swavola – one of the principal authors of the report and Senior Program Associate for Sentencing and Corrections with the Vera Institute for Justice – explained that the study aims to expose the unique challenges faced by female offenders in a correctional system designed by and for men.

“As jurisdictions are exploring ways to reform their jail systems we really wanted to bring women into the conversation,” said Swavola. “Women are really the low-hanging fruit [of the reform conversation] because they often are often committing low-level offenses.”

Data shows that the number of female inmates in county and municipal jail custody has skyrocketed over the past four decades. In 1970, three-quarters of the nation's jails didn't hold a single female inmate, according to the report. Since then, the number of women in the correctional system has grown fourteen-fold, with more than half of females in custody housed in local jails.

The vast majority of these women -- 82 percent -- are charged with minor or nonviolent offenses, and a significant proportion are jailed for violating terms of probation or parole. Almost all are poor, and – like the majority of jailed inmates, regardless of gender – most are awaiting trial and unable to afford bail.

But female offenders stand out as a particularly vulnerable group.

According to the Vera Institute, 60 percent of women in jail lacked full-time employment at the time of their arrest, and nearly 30 percent were receiving public assistance. That's compared to fewer than eight percent of male inmates who were on government assistance when they entered custody.

Also, female inmates exhibit higher rates of mental illness than their male counterparts, and more than three-quarters report having suffered sexual or physical abuse at some point in their lifetimes. Few jails have the resources to properly address these issues. Even worse, according to Swavola, jail protocols – such as pat downs, full-body searches and monitored showers – can have the effect of re-traumatizing women who are already being untreated for past abuse.

According to Swavola: “Trauma survivors are likely to perceive the often invasive nature of many daily correctional procedures, and the close quarters in which incarcerated women live, as profoundly threatening, activating the distress that both underlies and accompanies trauma.”

In Philadelphia -- which is one of 20 municipalities to receive grant money under the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge -- prosecutors say they are working to address these issues through a partnership with the Joseph J. Peters Institute -- a nonprofit group that provides treatment to survivors of sexual abuse.

Derek Riker -- who heads the Diversion Courts Unit for Philadelphia District Attorney's Office -- says his program aims to identify defendants who are victims of sexual abuse and provide necessary services.

Riker’s office oversees a number of “problem-solving courts” that promote alternatives to detention -- including an Accelerated Misdemeanor Program that eliminated 4,880 listed cases from the court calendar last year, according to city data.

Another diversionary program, Project DAWN, connects repeat offenders arrested for prostitution with therapeutic and reentry services.

But Riker says that navigating a social service network that is largely geared toward male offenders presents challenges.

“It’s a resources game that we are playing,” he said. “There is a disproportionate lack of availability of services for women.”

For example, he explained that while the city contracts with roughly half-a-dozen residential programs that accept male offenders on methadone maintenance for opioid addiction, there are only “one or two” available for women.

“Add in a child and things are even trickier, there are really few options,” he said.

Nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, but unlike incarcerated men, they are, by and large, single parents, solely responsible for their young children, the report found.

Meanwhile, women in local jails now represent the fastest growing incarcerated population in United States. Researchers lay much of the blame on the war on drugs and “broken windows” policing -- which for decades focused law enforcement attention of low-level “quality of life” crimes.

“While the increased focus on minor offenses stemming from these policies expanded both men’s and women’s risk of arrest, there have been clear gendered impacts in practice that magnified the likelihood of arrests of women,” the report states.

“This is primarily because women are more likely to be involved in minor offenses like simple drug possession -- the type of activity targeted by both drug law enforcement and broken windows policing.”

Between 1980 and 2009, for instance, the arrest rate for drug possession or use tripled for women -- while the arrest rate for men doubled. By the early 2000s, 50 percent of women in jails were in custody on public order or drug charges.

Yet Swavola says researchers still lack a complete picture of all the factors impacting female mass incarceration.

“The data that does exist is pretty scarce, and most of it's a decade or two old,” she said.

One mystery is the exponential rise of incarcerated women in some of America’s smallest jurisdictions. While the number of women in jail in major metropolitan areas has remained fairly steady over the past few decades, the incarceration rate for female offenders in counties with populations below 250,000 has surged and is now 31 times what it was in 1970.

“This is one of those areas that further needs more explanation about what's going on,” said Swavola. “People are finally talking about jails and starting to think about practices and policies to address unnecessary incarceration.

“But it has to be evidence-driven and we just don’t have all those answers yet.”

Christopher Moraff

Christopher Moraff

Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based freelancer and a contributing writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.