State officials discuss trauma, substance use among incarcerated women | Friday Morning Coffee

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reports that about 66 percent of the women in state correctional institutions (SCIs) are on the DOC mental health roster; more than 50 percent of the women have a history of substance use

December 3, 2021 6:30 am

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Associate Editor Cassie Miller here, filling in for John today.

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania First Lady Frances Wolf hosted the third panel in a series of virtual roundtables with mental health professionals and state officials to discuss mental health and substance use among women in the commonwealth’s criminal justice system.

“As a society, we are becoming more aware of the role that mental health plays in our collective wellbeing and we see the detriments of not tending to it or addressing our trauma,” Wolf said Wednesday.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reports that about 66 percent of the women in state correctional institutions (SCIs) are on the DOC mental health roster; more than 50 percent of the women have a history of substance use.

“It is crucial that we understand the impacts that trauma and mental illness have on women pre-incarceration and during incarceration, and what that means for their successful reentry into our communities upon their release,” Dr. Dan Jurman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Advocacy and Reform (OAR) said. “When you understand the effects of those traumas, you can work to prevent them and create environments where these women can thrive.”

Jurman added that 50 percent of substance use can be traced back to childhood trauma, calling trauma and incarceration “intersectional issues.”

Among the top concerns shared Wednesday by panelists was the role of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women as mothers and caregivers.

“You’re not just dealing with the woman that’s on parole, you’re dealing with families,” Kelly Evans, deputy secretary of reentry at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said. “Over 80 percent of the women who enter our system have experienced some sort of trauma in their life. It doesn’t get more connected than that.”

Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith, speaks during a press conference, which discussed the need to expand our lens of focus from opioids to fighting overall substance use disorder with the increase of polysubstance and stimulant use across the commonwealth, inside Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in Harrisburg on Monday, October 18, 2021 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jen Smith told virtual attendees that Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system has an “opportunity” to set women reentering their communities up to face the lowest risk possible upon reentry.

“Upon reentry into the community, one of the first things they are going to be looking to do if they are untreated, is use,” Smith said, adding that 50 percent of incarcerated people have an untreated substance use disorder.

Smith said that untreated substance use disorder leads to “dangerously high” overdose rates during reentry.

Local and state entities, such as single county authorities, which help formerly incarcerated individuals find housing, employment and access support, are critical to supporting reentry, Smith said.

She added that funding those supports prior to an individual’s release is critical to reducing recidivism, adding that the support should not stop once a person has reentered their community.

“DOC could not do half of what we do without the community,” Evans said, noting that the department is implementing “trauma-informed” care approaches, and now requires new hires to women’s’ prisons in Pennsylvania to  complete “Women Offenders in PA Corrections” training.

“It really takes all of us working together,” Evans said. “I think we’ve made great strides in Pennsylvania,” adding that the department will continue to make changes.

The next Women in Reentry roundtable in the series is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 15. 

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

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What Goes On 

The desk is clear. Enjoy the silence.

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