How Volunteering Opened My Eyes To The Struggles Of Women In The U.S. Justice System

Photo: primipil | Canva
Female behind the bars of jail

Stepping inside the jail for the first time felt strange and dismal, even with the artificial Christmas tree blinking happily near the doorway. My heart raced as I approached the desk, trying to appear confident but feeling like my privilege was tattooed across my forehead. I wondered if the guards thought I might be lost.

I was there because I’d volunteered as a mentor for a program called Resolana. Its mission was to provide support to incarcerated women to help them as they prepare for release and re-entry.

I’d been introduced to the program through a woman named Andrea, who was the volunteer coordinator and trainer. She was incarcerated years prior and returned to school to become a social worker. When she shared the need for a volunteer with good listening skills who could provide support for women, I immediately said yes. I had much to learn about the system and the women enmeshed in it. I grew up in an upper-middle-class white family and attended a private school.

There had been some drug use at my school among kids with too much money and not enough parental supervision, but it was dealt with swiftly and harshly. When I started my volunteer training, I realized how different the lives of these women were from my own.

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My first impression of Monica, one of the women I met, was that she was bubbly, upbeat, and excited to meet me. This was her second time in jail and going through the substance recovery program. She was embarrassed about how her arrest played out and worried that her relationship with her kids would suffer.

She was arrested because she and her boyfriend stopped by the side of the road when they witnessed a car accident. But instead of providing aid, they robbed the driver and took off into the night to buy drugs.

Previously, Monica was on the way to the success story she dreamed of — she had a good job waiting tables, a paid-for car in her driveway, and a great relationship with her kids. Then she met Sean. Being with him was exciting and gave her an escape from the pressure and responsibilities of being a single mother. But he was the one who pulled her back into the lifestyle she’d struggled so desperately to break free from.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she told me about her kids. She was grateful that her mom was taking care of them, and she got to see them every other Saturday when families could visit. I asked about what happened to Sean, and she admitted that even though she hadn’t been able to see in person, they’d written letters back and forth. His sentence was longer than hers, but she planned to wait for him. She still loved him. And even though her counselor cautioned her to cut ties, she couldn’t picture life without him.

As I got to know Monica over the next 6 months, I learned about her background and how different it was from mine. She’d been raised by a dad who was a drug dealer and a mom who was a prostitute. She’s been raped and assaulted multiple times. She had her first child at 17.

She started using drugs at age 10. Heroin, cocaine, and meth were all a part of her experience. I thought about when I was 10, and our school handed out pencils with “Just Say No” printed on them and gave us talks about the evils of drugs. It was almost laughable to think about how little impact a pencil with a slogan on it would have had on Monica’s childhood.

As of December 2022, there were over one million males and about 87,000 females in the US prison system.



In recent decades, the number of women in the prison system has increased exponentially. This is because of harsher drug sentencing laws and barriers to re-entry that affect women differently than men. Most incarcerated women are victims of violence, sexual abuse, and corresponding trauma.

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On one of my weekly visits, Monica was visibly upset. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me they had taken her to the local hospital that day for medical treatment, and they needed blood work. The nurse had difficulty locating Monica’s vein and ended up asking her to insert the needle into her arm. The entire experience was traumatic for her, and it triggered the emotions of her drug use experience.

It shocked me that this could happen. However, I’ve realized many inmates are not getting adequate healthcare behind bars because of staff and funding shortages.

A quarter of women, compared to only 12% of incarcerated men, have been convicted of a drug offense. Women are more likely to be low-income, with higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness. Two-thirds are mothers to children, and many were heading a single-parent household. Their societal needs are unmet, and this trend continues inside the justice system.

As Monica’s release date approached, we discussed her plans. She was lucky to have her mom’s support. She would have a place to stay and a car to drive. She said that some of her friends would have to stay in a homeless shelter. She worried about them because she’d heard rumors about rampant drug use and sexual assault in shelters.

Monica planned to find a job at a local plastic factory that hired former inmates. She would need to continue the STAC (Successful Treatment of Addiction through Collaboration) program and would be under supervision for over a year. She worried that the time required for counseling, regular drug testing, and meeting with her supervisor, besides working full time, would be overwhelming and make her recovery more difficult.

While in the jail program, she had access to Narcotics Anonymous, wellness, parenting, and job readiness classes. While they had helped prepare her for re-entry, she worried it did not prepare her for the mental and emotional strain of juggling all the responsibilities.

She’d been told that 90% of drug abusers would relapse in the first year, and she was disheartened that this could happen to her. “What’s the point of it all if I’m just going to end back here again, anyway?” she asked me.

I tried to encourage her. She was taking steps to prepare her to be part of the success rate. But in the back of my mind, I had the same concern. Federal welfare legislation of 1996 included a lifetime ban on welfare or food stamp benefits for any person convicted of a drug felony.

On release, women experience greater anxiety and depression from balancing familial responsibilities, employment, and financial responsibilities, along with the pressure of staying clean.

They benefit from peer support and recovery programs but can become overwhelmed by balancing their responsibilities. They also face barriers to housing, health care, employment, and finding childcare.

I’m not sure what the solutions are, but I believe they start with having compassion for the lives of women trying to improve their lives after incarceration. The more we can work toward understanding people in different circumstances, the better equipped we are to create change in the world.

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As part of the program, Monica was required to check in with me as soon as she was released so I could continue meeting with her. She planned to call me on the day of her release, so I kept my phone close by throughout the day. It never rang. I checked with the program coordinator, who tried reaching out to Monica directly but could not make contact either.

She checked records to see if she had been re-arrested, but her name wasn’t there. She gave me Monica’s phone number, and I tried calling for two weeks. But she had disappeared. Due to lack of contact, Monica was dropped from the program and lost access to resources that could have helped her manage the overwhelm she feared. I worried about her and hoped her life turned around, but I knew the odds were stacked against her.

My experiences have given me deep compassion for women dealing with addiction, abuse, and incarceration.

Political reform is needed in our prison system. It’s an issue that impacts the very heart of society and the moral fabric of our nation. Politicians seem to either ignore the issue because it’s not sexy enough, or they believe harsher punishment is the answer. They often lack compassion because they come from backgrounds similar to mine and don’t empathize with the human issues at play.

We need more programs like Resolana that provide support and counseling to women, as well as resources to assist them when they are released. They need help with child care, food stamps, and mental health. Supporting them to lead impactful lives makes a difference for them, their families, and the systems perpetuating incarceration.

We can start with compassion and understanding. We are all impacted by discriminatory beliefs we’ve absorbed from society. Change begins with our realization of the realities of women and minorities in our prison system. Once we accept them for what they are, we can envision a better world and work toward action that moves us in that direction. Let’s join in the conversation together and see what we can accomplish.

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Suzanne Berger is a copywriter and content writer with a Bachelor's Degree in writing from the University of Evansville. She is an introverted empath who loves art, movies, and history.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.