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Female jail population rising nationwide; drugs blamed

Wire • Jun 9, 2014 at 11:38 AM

When deputy Angela Berg started working at the Summit County Jail nearly two decades ago, there were 75 female inmates, at most, on any given day.

In recent years, as methamphetamine and heroin have taken over, the female jail population has swelled.

Today, there are often more than 100 women in the facility. That's more than the jail was built to handle and has created additional stresses and costs for the county as it cares for more women.

"We long for those 75 days again," Berg said.

It's a problem occurring in county and city jails nationwide. Orange really is the new black.

The female inmate population has risen 11 percent to 102,400 in the past four years, according to a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Over the same time period, the male population has declined 4 percent.

Local criminal justice experts say it's due primarily to an increase in drug usage -- specifically meth and heroin -- among women. Even if they're not being busted on drug offenses, the crimes often are committed to support drug habits.

There's also the belief that women are behaving worse than they did in the past.

"Basically women are acting more like men," said David Licate, professor of criminal justice technology at the University of Akron, who noted that researchers in Canada and the United Kingdom have identified the same trend.

Summit County Jail Administrator Greg Macko, a former municipal judge, sheriff's deputy and Barberton police officer, said women are committing more serious crimes than in past years.

"It was unheard of 20 years ago, very unusual, to have a female involved in a homicide or something like that," he said. "But you're seeing more and more females in those types of crimes."

There are other contributing factors. Theories include traditional gender roles disappearing, domestic violence laws changing and women being targeted more by law enforcement in investigations.

Challenges for jails

The increase in female jail population poses significant challenges for jail administrators.

"It's a major problem throughout the state of Ohio because many of the county jails were not constructed to house female prisoners," said Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association in Columbus.

Jails that don't house women or don't have enough female beds incur additional costs transporting the inmates to other facilities and back, he said.

In Summit's case, because there are so many women, several often are held in an overflow area. But that means no men can be held there, creating a logistical problem.

The solution, Macko said, would be to build a female-only jail across the street from the current facility. That's unlikely to ever happen, though, because of the cost, he said.

Issues also arise when it comes to male deputies overseeing female inmates. The male deputies have to announce every time they enter a female housing area, meaning it's easier for the inmates to hide anything improper they are doing.

There also can be incidents involving female inmates exposing themselves to male deputies.

"These are things that occur that regular people don't understand or even hear about," Cornwell said.

Then there are extra costs associated with women. The jail must purchase more feminine hygiene products, for example. Summit County spent about $6,300 last year on those products.

And it's common to have pregnant inmates. That adds to medical costs. There are issues with staffing, as well, if the women have to be taken to the hospital.

"It's always a strain because it becomes a manpower issue," said Crawford County Sheriff Scott Kent, who estimated that there have been three or four pregnant inmates in his jail this year. "And if it creates overtime, there's a strain on the budget."

Stark County Jail Administrator Brian Arnold estimated there could be as many as two or three pregnant inmates at a time in Stark County.

He recalled a judge ordering a pregnant woman to remain in jail until her child was born because of concerns over the inmate's drug addiction.

"Those are the things that are challenging for us," Arnold said.

Trend to continue

Experts predict that the disturbing trend will continue. Even the inmates think so.

"If you take one person off the street cooking dope, five more pop up," said Jessica Hinkle, 28, who is serving time for a meth-related case. "It's so easy to do."

The first time she ended up in the Summit County Jail, it was -- as she puts it -- for hanging out with the wrong people. The actual offense involved meth.

That was four years ago.

Then came stolen property charges. And then, more meth charges.

Every time she comes back to jail, Hinkle said, she runs into some of the same female inmates and "more and more people."

Cornwell said sheriffs are working with mental health and drug rehabilitation groups to stem the trend.

"We wished we had a solution to turn the faucet off, but there doesn't appear to be any on the horizon," he said.

Rick Armon can be reached at (330) 996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com.


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