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When Martha Stewart left prison in 2004 after serving a five-month sentence for conspiracy and obstruction of justice, she issued an emotional plea on behalf of the women she did her time with, many of whom were locked up for nonviolent drug offenses. “I beseech you all to think about these women,” Stewart said in a statement (PDF). “They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life out there.”
Stewart recognized that many women with drug convictions were victims of lives crippled by poverty and hardship and that a little assistance from the state would be much more beneficial to them than a heavy dose of punishment.
Sadly, thanks to a hastily added provision to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), also known as the Welfare Reform Act, which aimed to reduce welfare dependence, not only are women with drug convictions unlikely to get the help they need before or during their incarceration, but many of them will also face being barred for life from receiving most forms of public benefits — from cash assistance to food stamps — after they serve their time.
A new report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming the U.S. criminal-justice system, examined the impact of the PRWORA provision, which affects those convicted in state and federal courts of felony drug offenses. Titled “A Lifetime of Punishment” (PDF), the report found that an estimated 180,000 women were being subjected to a lifetime exclusion from welfare benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The purpose of the prohibition, presumably, is to deter drug use and the criminal behavior that sometimes arises from it by making it harder for addicts to trade food stamps or use cash benefits for drugs. However, the report found no evidence that this goal was being achieved. On the contrary, by denying benefits to those most in need, the ill-conceived embargo, which is in full effect in 12 states (and in partial effect in 25 others), may be having a particularly devastating impact on women and children of color — and may be more likely to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and addiction that leads people to abuse or sell drugs in the first place.
Bearing the brunt
Both male and female drug offenders are subject to the lifetime disqualification from benefits, but minority women are feeling the brunt of the prohibition. Women of all races are far more likely than men to be enrolled in public-assistance programs, and women of color are far more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated for drug offenses. Over the past 30 years, the female prison population has increased (PDF) at nearly twice the rate of the male prison population, an unprecedented development largely attributable to the war on drugs. Today nearly one-third of women in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, and approximately two-thirds of women with drug convictions are black or Hispanic, even though data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services have shown that white women use drugs at roughly the same rate. Cumulatively, these factors have created the perfect storm in which poor women of color are most likely to be impacted by the embargo.
In 1996 the lifetime embargo on benefits for drug offenders was debated for a mere two minutes on the Senate floor before being unanimously adopted.
A policy that denies those with drug convictions access to food and cash benefits for life starts to look downright cruel when you take a closer look (PDF) at the lives of women who tend to end up in prison. As of 2003, 74 percent of women in state prisons had substance-abuse issues, 57 percent reported having been sexually or physically abused prior to their incarceration, about 73 percent (PDF) had some kind of mental-health problem, and almost a quarter suffered from a psychiatric disorder. Among women in state prisons, 64 percent of them did not graduate from high school, almost half were unemployed a month prior to their arrest, and nearly two-thirds were mothers of minors.
The combined weight of all of these disadvantages should be enough to stop lawmakers from imposing a lifetime embargo on benefits for any woman who has done prison time. Unfortunately for some women with drug convictions, many lawmakers, like Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who sponsored the original amendment, seem to think that the best way to help them is to make their lives even more difficult than they already are.
A two-minute debate
One would hope that what is at work here is the law of unintended consequences rather than a deliberate attempt by members of Congress to further marginalize some of the most vulnerable members of society. It is difficult to know, however, what Gramm and other lawmakers had in mind when they decided in 1996 to impose the lifetime embargo on benefits, because when the provision was introduced on the Senate floor, it was debated for a mere two minutes before being unanimously adopted by a voice vote. Furthermore, the provision was pushed through without any system in place to evaluate it, which, according to Marc Mauer, a co-author of the Sentencing Project’s report and an expert on criminal-justice policy reform, was a major oversight.
Mauer explained, “It’s really irrational for Congress to have passed something as significant as this ban is for re-entry and life prospects of prisoners and not to have allocated any funding to evaluate its impact or to see if the legislation is meeting its goal.”
The provision allows states to opt out of the prohibition if they wish, but so far, only 13 have done so. Twenty-five states have modified embargoes that either impose a time limits or allow benefits contingent on completion of drug-treatment programs. Twelve states — including ones with high poverty levels and large prison populations like Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas — still have outright embargoes in place.
At a federal level, bills have been introduced in Congress to repeal the prohibition, but none have gained enough support to change the policy. Meanwhile, a recent Farm Bill amendment introduced by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that sought to expand the scope of the embargo to retroactively include other felony convictions, was approved by the Senate. The Farm Bill is already a year behind schedule, and its many provisions are still being debated, so the future of this policy is not yet known, but the uncomfortable reality seems to be that Congress has yet to realize that in helping prisoners reintegrate into society, especially the most vulnerable among them, the carrot approach can be much more beneficial than the stick.
Sadhbh Walshe is a filmmaker and former staff writer for the CBS drama series “The District.” She writes a weekly column for The Guardian on social and criminal justice and has contributed to The New York Times, The Irish Times and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.