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As Opioids Fuel Growing Female Prison Population, Ohio Tries Alternative Treatment


Ohio has one of the largest female prison populations in the country. There are about nine times more women behind bars in the state today as there were just a few decades ago. And experts agree addiction has been fueling this rapid growth. Paige Pfleger from member station WOSU reports on one program inside a state prison that's trying to help women overcome addiction and change their lives.

JAMIE MONGHAN: These are our rooms. We don't really spend a lot of time in there. Only time we really is in there is during count time. Other than that, we're out here program...

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Wearing a blue uniform and matching blue eyeshadow, Jamie Monghan gives a tour of her prison unit. It looks like a brightly decorated elementary school. The walls are covered in multicolored handprints and encouraging sayings, like family is a verb and one day at a time.

MONGHAN: We able to come out our rooms and, if we having a bad day, look around and be able to see some of the things that might encourage us.

PFLEGER: Monghan is serving a seven-year sentence for robbery at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. She lives inside the Tapestry Treatment Community. It's the only addiction recovery unit for incarcerated women in the state. It uses a tiered approach and group therapy to help women identify the root causes that lead to addiction. For Monghan, that was being molested and pressured into an abortion at a young age.

MONGHAN: 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 I didn't even think affected me, I'm starting to realize that it really did.

PFLEGER: Tapestry opened in 1990 as the opioid epidemic raged through Ohio, incarcerating women at the highest rates in the state's history.

MONGHAN: This is a safe haven.

PFLEGER: The unit has more than 100 beds reserved for women brought in on drug charges or struggling with addiction. In Ohio, that's a lot of the female prison population. In fact, 35% of all charges against women in the last decade were drug related. And that doesn't include theft and burglary, which are often tied to addiction, too, says retired Franklin County drug court judge, Scott VanDerKarr.

SCOTT VANDERKARR: They're either stealing to feed their habit or, you know, getting involved in other criminal activity due to their opiate addiction or to their substance use disorder. We need to get people with substance use disorder into treatment and not in our prisons, and that's what's been happening.

PFLEGER: That's where programs like Tapestry come in. As the population of women exploded, it became readily apparent that addiction and recovery services needed to grow, too. Ronette Burkes heads all of Ohio's women's prisons.

RONETTE BURKES: Our responsibility is not to punish people. The punishment is their sentence to prison. Our responsibility is to help enhance and change their lives.

PFLEGER: From 7:30 until 5:00 every day, inmates in the Tapestry Program have nonstop group therapy. They talk about relapse prevention, health, domestic violence. Inmate Jamie Monghan says the work doesn't stop there.

MONGHAN: This is like a community, so we are held at a higher standard. This is our house.

PFLEGER: She says her fellow inmates, her sisters, hold each other accountable around the clock. It's helped her learn to set boundaries and to advocate for herself.

MONGHAN: I've been working my butt off. And every opportunity that I have in here is to actually be able to be a better person, I'm taking it because I'm worth it. You know, I know that now. And I know that something has to change in my life in order for me to be able to move forward.

PFLEGER: The recidivism rate for women in Ohio is about 17% according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. For women released from Tapestry, the rate is about a third of that. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Marysville, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paige Pfleger