Drug Charges Fuel Ohio's Rapidly Growing Female Prison Population

May 30, 2019

Heroin ran Stephanie Pollock's life. She woke up in the morning with heroin on her mind, her day revolved around it, and everything else including her three kids and her own well-being paled in comparison.

"I was at the point in my addiction where I wasn't enjoying it. I obviously wanted out of it, but you're frozen and you don't know how to get there," Pollock says.

"I truly believe had I not come to prison I wouldn't have been able to attain that."

Now Pollock's days are dictated by count time, group therapy sessions, and a chore chart. She lives in an addiction treatment community inside the Ohio Reformatory For Women, serving a 7.5-year sentence for drug possession and trafficking.

"In total, I probably only used three years off and on," Pollock says. "It seems like, when I think back, my addiction wasn't really that long, but the consequences were so great."

Pollock's story is representative of a nationwide trend, stemming from the "War On Drugs" in the 1970s and further fueled by the current opioid epidemic. Prison populations surged across the country, putting more men and women behind bars.

It's women who are disproportionately affected, though. For every man in Ohio's prison system in 1978, there are now three men in his place. For every incarcerated woman, there are nearly nine women today.

Stephanie Pollock is serving a 7.5-year sentence inside the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

More than 4,500 women are currently in Ohio's prisons — one of the largest female prison populations in the country. Although male inmates still make up the majority, the number of women is growing at almost double the rate of men, according to a WOSU analysis of U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

"Each week on Wednesday we do an orientation with our women," says Teri Bauldoff, the warden of the Ohio Reformatory for Women. The Marysville facility is the oldest and largest female prison in the state, and one of the largest female prisons in the country.

"While going through the services we offer, I say, ‘We understand that many of you may have drugs in your charge somehow, and raise your hand if you think you need recovery services.' And most of them do."

Addiction To Incarceration

Over the last decade, drug-related crimes encompass more than 35% of all charges against incarcerated women.

Three of the top five most common charges against women in Ohio were drug-related, according to a WOSU analysis of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections intake data.  By far the most common charge against incarcerated women was drug possession, with drug trafficking and manufacturing illicit drugs following close behind.


ODRC data shows more than 5,500 drug possession charges were doled out to women over just the last decade.

"We have so many women who are incarcerated, who have experienced trauma, who have been assaulted, if not physically then sexually or emotionally," says Ronette Burkes.

Burkes worked at the Ohio Reformatory for Women for seven years, and now oversees all women's prisons in the state.

"When you listen to the stories of the women, and you hear their journey that got them to prison, you almost can see how they ended up in prison," Burkes says. "A lot of times they use drugs and alcohol as a way to cope."

Top: Outside the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Lower left: The Tapestry Unit provides drug treatment and peer counseling for women arrested on drug-related charges. Lower right: Tapestry inmates can leave positive strokes for each other or prison employees.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

The other two most common charges, theft and burglary, are often tied to addiction, says retired Franklin County drug court judge Scott Van Der Karr.

"They're either stealing to feed their habit or getting involved in other criminal activity due to their opioid addiction or their substance abuse disorder," Van Der Karr says.

He estimates that 80% of all crimes in Ohio are driven by substance abuse disorders, even if the crimes are not explicitly drug-related.

Meeting The Needs Of A Growing Population

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation has strained under the weight of the rapidly-growing female prison population.

In the 1970s, the Ohio Reformatory for Women was the only female prison facility in the state. Northeast Reintegration Center in Cleveland opened its doors following rapid growth from 1987-88. After another prison population boom, the Dayton Correctional Institute was converted in 2011 from a male to a female facility, due to lack of bed space for women.


As the number of female inmates grew, Burkes says it became apparent that addiction and recovery services needed to expand, as well.

"We have a system where we are sending people for prison for crimes like drug abuse and things like that," Burkes says. "We have a responsibility to insure that the people who go home have a chance, have an opportunity for a different life. And so our recovery services programs are absolutely necessary for that."

The Ohio Reformatory for Women houses many specialized units that are unique not only for the state, but also for the country.

ORW offers one of only eight prison nurseries in the country, which allows pregnant incarcerated women to keep their babies with them. There were approximately 425 pregnant women in Ohio's prisons in the last decade, according to ODRC data, but only a small percentage of those women met all the qualifications of the nursery program.

The prison also has the state's only addiction recovery community for women. The Tapestry Unit opened in 1990, at the head of the opioid crisis. The unit has more than 100 beds, specifically reserved for women brought in on drug charges or struggling with addiction.

"Even in the name of our department, it's Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and we're one of few states who have left that name in our department's name," Burkes says. "Rehabilitation is our first and foremost responsibility to the people that we serve."

A Space For Recovery

Jamie Monghan proudly gives a tour of the Tapestry Unit. It looks more like a brightly decorated elementary school than a prison unit: The walls are covered in multi-colored handprints of the women who completed the program, and encouraging sayings like "Family is a verb" and "one day at a time."

"We're able to come out of our rooms and if we're having a bad day look around and see some of the things that might encourage us," Monghan says, looking up at the walls.

Looking out from the Tapestry Unit onto a courtyard at the Ohio Reformatory For Women.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

Monghan's been in the tapestry unit for six months, after two years in the general prison population. She's serving a seven-year sentence for robbery a habit she and her cousin developed to support their addiction to opioids.

"Being back here has really changed my life, it really has," Monghan says. "It's been a really huge eye opener for me. A lot of things that I've been through in my life that I try to shut out, and that I didn't even think affected me. I'm starting to realize it really did."

The goal of the Tapestry unit is to identify underlying factors that lead to addiction. For Monghan, she says she's been trying to face being molested and forced into an abortion when she was only eight years old. More recently, her infant daughter caught pneumonia and died.

"I can't say that I would have been able to process or be able to even talk about her had I not been back here," Monghan says. "These ladies have been my shoulder to cry on."

Warden Teri Bauldoff and Ronette Burkes inside the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

The women in Tapestry participate in intensive, all-day group therapy to create accountability and trust. Monghan says in the six months she's been part of the unit, she learned how to set boundaries and to advocate for herself. When she's released, Monghan says she won't go back to the same environment that lead her to prison.

"I've been working my butt off, and every opportunity that I have in here to be able to be a better person, I'm taking it," she says. "Because I'm worth it. I know that now, and I know that something has to change in my life in order for me to move forward."

The general recidivism rate for Ohio's female inmates is about 17%, according to the ORDC. Among women who go through the Tapestry program, recidivism is only about a third of that.

Turning To Treatment Instead Of Time

The Ohio Reformatory for Women considers itself a leader in advocating for resources for women in Ohio's prisons, Burkes says. She's proud of the Tapestry community, their OBGYN and health care offerings, mental health services, and, most recently, free tampons.

Burkes says she wishes the same resources were available to women before they reach the prison system.

"We lack diversion programs for women in our community," she says. "I would love to see more diversion programs for women that would not lead them here."

The room Jamie Monghan lives in the Tapestry Unit.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg / WOSU

Van Der Karr says the responsibility lies with the criminal justice system to treat addiction like a disease, instead of a crime.

"The bottom line is we need less people in the prison system," Van Der Karr says. "We need to cut down the number of people we are sending and have alternative treatment like programs available. We need to get people with mental health issues into mental health system; we need to get people with substance use disorder into treatment, and not in our prisons."

Van Der Kerr says if the public health argument isn't enough to convince those in the criminal justice system, maybe the price tag will: It costs taxpayers more than $27,000 to imprison one person for a year in Ohio.

It costs a fraction of that to divert a someone into drug court or a treatment program.