Words From Prison: The Collateral Consequences of Incarceration

Maria served six years out of a 10-year prison sentence for selling one vial of crack cocaine. It was the first time she had sold a controlled substance, leading to her first arrest and conviction. The drug sale was a way to make money to pay for the drugs that Maria herself was using. At eighteen, Maria had started using drugs as a way of helping her cope with the severe physical abuse she had suffered as a child by her stepfather. He routinely beat her and her brothers and sisters, most often on the days that he would drink heavily.

Numerous studies show that trauma related to physical abuse often leads to subsequent drug and/or alcohol addiction in women. Drugs and alcohol are often used to self-medicate in the face of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety.

When arrested, Maria pleaded guilty and received the minimum term of five to ten years in prison. Her years in prison were hard, but Maria used the time to get her high school diploma and to sign up for as many vocational classes as she could, though the prison offered only a handful. Despite receiving no substance abuse treatment while in prison, Maria no longer felt the pull of drugs. During her incarceration, Maria kept up her good standing and was scheduled to be released after serving six years of her sentence. She was happy to be returning to her neighborhood in the Bronx and looked forward to seeing her brothers and sisters again. But she was unsure about where she would live, and what sort of job she could get.

On any given day, the United States locks up more than 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world per capita. More than 650,000 of those people are released from state and federal prisons every year. Within three years, more than two-thirds of them end up behind bars again. Instead of helping prisoners transition back into their communities, many state and federal laws impede access to basic necessities.

When she returned to her neighborhood, Maria decided to move in with her sister, Elena, until she could find a job and place of her own. Her stepfather and her mother still lived nearby, and Maria was reminded of the abuse every time she saw her stepfather around the neighborhood.

Maria tried to apply for a number of jobs, but was told by all her prospective employers that they didn't want anyone who had "done time."

Employment opportunities for people convicted of a crime are extremely limited. Most states allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record, regardless of how much time has passed or the individual's work history or personal circumstances.

When Maria realized how difficult it would be to get a job, she thought about going to college, having worked hard to get her high school degree while in prison. After getting and filling out the federal loan application forms, though, Maria realized that this was not an option for her.

The federal Higher Education Act of 1998 makes students convicted of drug-related offenses ineligible for any grant, loan, or work-study assistance.

Eventually, sharing a cramped apartment with her sister, Elena, and Elena's family became too difficult on everyone. Elena didn't like having Maria's parole officer show up at the apartment every week, sometimes without any warning, snooping around into her life and asking her kids questions.

Being discharged on parole means having regular, scheduled, supervised meetings with a field parole officer at the parolee's home and parole office. The parole officer also makes unannounced visits to the parolee's home, and occasionally conducts random drug tests.

Maria decided she needed to live on her own and applied for a housing voucher that would help her afford her own apartment, only to learn that this option too was closed to her.

Drug offenders are barred from obtaining federal housing assistance. In many states, they are also ineligible for food stamps or welfare benefits. Without basic income supports, and with obstacles to finding employment, many formerly incarcerated women find themselves without any legal way to obtain basic necessities, including housing and food.

Hitting one dead end after another, Maria felt her optimism about starting a new life begin to fade. She started spending her days with old friends and, needing money, started thinking about selling drugs again. Depressed and trapped, she began to use drugs herself again. She also became involved with a man who was abusive, and moved in with him because she had no where else to live. He began by slapping her and using degrading language especially when they were in public, but soon the violence escalated.

The consequences of a criminal conviction are far-reaching and pose barriers to reentry long after a prison term has been served. These collateral consequences make it far more difficult for women to become financially independent and escape from violent relationships.

Eventually, Maria tried to do the right thing, and told her parole officer that she needed in-patient drug treatment. Her parole officer agreed and sent her to an upstate facility. After several weeks in treatment, Maria realized that the structure of the program was not for her. The program emphasized an aggressive, military-style approach to ending drug use, but did not address any of the reasons Maria had started using drugs in the first place, including the physical abuse she had suffered as a child. The program also required participants to reveal their stories to one another, but Maria did not feel safe sharing her memories when she knew that some members of the group had themselves been abusive to their families when using drugs. She decided that it would be better for her if she left the program, and told the staff that she wanted to go back to the Bronx, meet with her parole officer, and find another treatment program. When she called her parole officer to ask about this possibility, she was transferred to a new officer, who she did not know. That parole officer told Maria not to leave the facility, but she did anyway. The next time she checked in with her parole officer, as required, she was arrested and charged with violating her parole by leaving the treatment facility without permission. She was sentenced to one year in prison for this violation. Upon returning to prison, Maria felt so despondent that one day she attempted to slit her wrists. She was sent to the medical ward, where she got anti-depressant drugs, but still no counseling or treatment for her drug addiction or the violence she had suffered as a child – the underlying cause of her addiction.

The New York State Parole Board's "parole revocation guidelines" are based not on the nature and seriousness of the charged parole violation, but on the nature of the original conviction.


  • Learn more about and support local judicial efforts to redirect first-time non-violent drug offenders into drug treatment programs rather than prison. Volunteer with or donate to organizations that provide drug rehabilitation services to drug offenders, such as the Center for Community Alternatives in New York, <>www.communityalternatives.org.
  • Learn more about the barriers formerly incarcerated women face when they leave prison and what advocates can do to remove these barriers at the Women's Prison Association's website, <>www.wpaonline.org. The Women's Prison Association takes a dual approach to the issues facing criminal-justice involved women, combining a commitment to providing one-on-one direct services with a commitment to effecting changes in practice and policy through the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice. Also visit www.reentry.net
  • Become a mentor to a woman leaving prison and reentering her community by volunteering with the Women's Prison Association's WomenCare program: www.wpaonline.org.
  • Volunteer with ReConnect, a leadership training program for formerly incarcerated women, coordinated by the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York. For more information, visit www.correctionalassociation.org.
  • In New York, employers cannot reject job applicants based on a criminal conviction unless there is a direct relationship between that conviction and the job in question, or unless hiring the applicant would pose an unreasonable risk to the safety of people or property. Is your employer abiding by this law? How can your workplace help formerly incarcerated women begin again?
  • Write to your representatives in Congress to support the Second Chance Act, H.R. 1704, a federal law that would give states the flexibility to develop a range of prisoner reentry programs to fit their circumstances.
  • Write to your state legislators to support laws like California's Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, which allocated $120 million per year to the redirection of first-time non-violent drug offenders into drug treatment programs rather than prison. So far, over 50,000 drug offenders have participated in drug treatment, the majority of whom are doing so for the first time in their lives. Such treatment is far more cost effective than imprisonment. The estimated savings for California taxpayers is approximately $1.5 billion over five and half years.
  • Learn more about and support drug treatment programs that are specifically designed to help women overcome their drug abuse and that address the specific reasons that many women turn to drugs. The Crossroads program for women, operated by the Center for Community Alternatives in New York City, is a successful example of one such program. To learn more visit: www.communityalternatives.org/programs/drug/crossroads.html
  • Read more about the harmful ways in which drug policies impact women and families and steps you can take to change these policies in the ACLU's Caught in the Net, available at www.aclu.org/womensrights and www.fairlaws4families.org

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