Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

Rise of women in Pasco jail blamed on drug addiction


When Maj. Ed Beckman started working at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in 1985, the jail usually had about three female inmates, most charged with minor crimes, like writing bad checks or driving on a suspended license.

On Thursday, there were 309 women living at the jail, a few charged with murder.

And that's a low number. There have been days this year when the count has pushed higher than 350. It's still less than the male population, which often hovers around 1,100, but it's increasing at a higher rate.

As Pasco's population has grown, so has the number of people behind bars. But since 2000 — when the jail housed 83 women on an average day — the female inmate population has increased at nearly twice the rate of men.

No one knows why.

There are many theories.

Addiction is one.

"It's obviously the drug crimes," Beckman said.

• • •

Jessica Green is small and fair, with light blue eyes and short, auburn hair, her pregnant belly pushing against her orange and white uniform. She's been here since July 18 on charges of stealing and pawning jewelry.

"I owed money," she said at the jail Thursday, "and it seemed like a way out."

Green said she did it because of her addiction to Roxicodone.

"I tried it when I was 16 and I liked it," she said.

She is now 20 and four and a half months pregnant with her second child. In 2004, the jail had 42 pregnant women, said Dalia Hernandez-Gibson, director of health services for the jail.

In just the first six months of this year, she said, the jail has housed 114 pregnant inmates. The jail usually has about four pregnant inmates who have to be transported for methadone treatments. Hernandez-Gibson said the women continue their treatments through pregnancy because it is dangerous for the baby to be taken off the drugs.

The increase in female inmates has had a huge impact on medical services, not just with pregnancies and normal medical issues, but many women booked in are also detoxing off drugs. The jail is opening a new medical unit next year to handle the overflow of women's medical needs.

Green hopes she will be out by the time her baby is born. She doesn't know yet if it's a boy or a girl. She shares cell 104 with two other women in the Delta housing unit, one of seven at the facility for women. Beckman said the jail, which has expanded throughout past years, has not had a problem housing the increased numbers of inmates. In Green's cell, there is a bunk bed and a cot with gray blankets on each. The women gave Green the bottom bunk to be nice, which Green appreciates. She and her cellmates say they — and the majority of other women incarcerated in Pasco — are there because of drugs and the things their addictions made them do. "Everybody in there has drug problems," Green said softly, her eyes glossy with tears.

While the number of people behind bars continues to increase, the percentage of women has remained relatively steady in other jurisdictions. Pinellas, for example, has remained stable, said Cecilia Barreda, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The percentages of females incarcerated in local jails nationally appear to be increasing slowly, going from 11.5 percent of the total jail population in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The percentages of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons also appears to be holding steady — hovering between 6 and 7 percent of the total prison population — though the numbers of women incarcerated are increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The same holds true for Florida prisons, which have seen the percentage of female inmates increase from 6 percent of the prison population in 2002 to 7 percent in 2011.

In 2000, the percentage of female inmates at the Pasco County jail was 12.5 percent. This year, it's been between 21 and 25 percent, Beckman said.

"Our female population has really spiked," he said.

The drug epidemic has been well documented in Pasco, which has, along with Pinellas, led Florida in fatal overdoses in prescription drugs such as oxycodone, though the figures are starting to decline. Tracey Kaly, a clinical manager for BayCare Behavioral Health, said Pasco still leads the state, per capita, in babies born addicted to drugs. The county's rate of drug-addicted newborns has increased 2,840 percent since 2005, she said.

"The issue is still addiction," Kaly said. "The drug of choice may vary from year to year."

• • •

Our culture has changed and with it, might be another answer to the increase in female inmates, said Dr. Robert Diemer, director of graduate studies in criminal justice at Saint Leo University.

In past decades, women often stayed home while the men went out and worked.

That is not the world now.

"Women are doing more today than they have ever done in history," Diemer said.

This is a good thing, he said.

But, with those new societal roles for women, comes equality — at home, at work.

And in crime.

"More women are independent and some women are electing not to be socially responsible," he said, "just like males."

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said he thinks the increase in female inmates is a result of the agency making more arrests on drug-related crimes.

"Our philosophy is that we will not be enablers," Nocco said. "If a person commits a crime to fuel their addiction they will go to jail."

But Nocco has also espoused a holistic approach to crime fighting, with drug education in schools and installing a substance-abuse recovery program inside the jail. The program, called Celebrate Recovery, has a network of church-based support groups to help inmates after they are released.

Rebecca Kirkman is in the program. She said it's working.

Kirkman is 27 and pregnant with her fourth child. She's been in and out of jail — and prison, once, for a few months — for her adult life, all because of her addiction to crack cocaine, she said. Kirkman gave birth to her first child, a girl, while incarcerated in the Pasco jail in 2006. She said she's been incarcerated during her other pregnancies, too.

Crack "took control," of her life, she said. "I go out and party and I can't stop."

She said she's been sober for six months. She was arrested in 2011 for possession of crack and drug paraphernalia. Kirkman's in now for violating her probation. She said it was because she wasn't home when her probation officer came to check on her.

This is her last time in jail, she said. She can't keep explaining to her 6-year-old daughter, old enough to remember things now, why she's gone again. It's hard being pregnant in jail, but said. But she said it also helps.

"I don't feel so alone," she said, "because there is somebody who needs me — and needs me to do it right this time."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.

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