Work has prevented me from giving appropriate energy to this blog. I have two jobs. I love them both, and I work way too much.
Lately my workload feels overwhelming. I’ve had trouble keeping up with other parts of my life, including giving minimal energy to things like eating real food and sleeping more than five hours a night. The lack of rest has in turn led to my being less than stellar at my jobs, leading me to believe that this could not go on for much longer. But before I could intervene on my own behalf something else happened: my sister left court mandated rehab, was caught and will soon be facing between 2 and 25 years in prison for violating her probation.
She will likely not have to serve more than her original sentence (2 years). Still, when you hear someone say that your 19 year old sister may spend most of her adult life in jail, no amount of rational thought can overtake the emotional shock it brings. My sister and I went through some hard times as kids. For many reasons, her life continues to be a series of challenges that she struggles to meet. We have very little in common, and yet she is one of few people in the world whose broken heart I can feel cracking open in my own chest.
Each person facing problems like my sister’s has a unique story. What I’ve learned through my sister’s experience is that society will fail to hear, appreciate or be able to rehabilitate a frightening majority of them. A mere 11% of women offenders were successfully discharged from parole in 1996 (and reports don’t indicate an improvement since then). There are multiple failures at work in my sister’s case. First and foremost, my sister continues to sabotage her own recovery over and over again. She is a 19 year old girl. She’s selfish and immature, with a generous dose of violence and neglect informing the way she sees the world. Secondly, we, her family, struggle to support her while dealing with the pain her choices have caused us. Finally, my sister’s predicament would not be possible without a supporting cast of violent and amoral repeat offenders. I understand that she chose her defense attorney over another because the latter is someone who she met through his taste for drugs and underage prostitutes.
But individual offenses alone cannot account for the persistent failures of the system. A 1999 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 44% of women offenders reported physical or sexual abuse (consider as well victims’ reluctance to speak up about abuse: only 60% of sexual assaults are reported to police). 60% of female* offenders report using drugs prior to their incarceration. Abuse, drugs and prison. Prison, abuse and drugs. My sister is broken. But the system that fails to see these connections is broken too.
I confess this dark personal story reluctantly, but with intentionality. My sister is going to jail. When she’s out again, she will have a really hard time finding a job. She will be systematically denied access to public housing and certain social welfare programs. She will still have to deal with the personal issues that caused her to start using in the first place. She will continue to go to NA meetings. At some point, we’ll be getting ready together in the morning and she’ll explode into a raging, sobbing mess because she’s out of shampoo. She’ll curse at me. I’ll cry. We’ll both feel crushed by the impossibility of her being anything but the angry, sad sum of her experiences.
This long, arduous road of recovery is the hope to which I cling. But for many women–women without families, women with HIV+ status, women of color, women previously dependent on social welfare programs–this light doesn’t exist. When they get out, they will face the same lack of resources and will not have anyone there to scream at when they don’t have shampoo… or housing.
*Sorry about the gender/sex ambiguity here, but this is the language used by the cited reports.