How Drugs Devastate Women of Color

By Ananya Bhattacharya

All her life, Michelle Cruz steered clear of trouble. Often, children and teens brought up in communities with high crimes rates and negative role models often get swayed towards a life of crime. Here was Cruz, born and raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a protected Puerto Rican and Dominican household. Lower Manhattan was an extension of her—she went to junior high school between Avenue A and B, attended high school at East Side Community High School and worked at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). She is the most educated person in her family. She was not a troublesome toddler or a rash, rebellious teenager. In 2013, Cruz, then 28, became the first person in her family to get arrested.

“It was the first time I’d ever been arrested, the first time I’d ever been in trouble— anything, anything that had to do with the system— so in the beginning I thought it wasn’t gonna be so bad. I figured I’ll just go to court and everything will get settled,” said Cruz.

The judge did not budge and Cruz was given a plea offer—it was either that she takes the two to six or she goes to trial. If the trial went wrong, she’d risk getting a lot more time. Cruz pled guilty to a conspiracy charge in a drug crime case involving many others. She served 18 months and now she is currently on parole.


Michelle Cruz

“I kind of felt like I had my back against the wall. I just felt like everything in my life was being defined by the actions that I did in that moment or that time and I felt like they weren’t taking into consideration the fact that I was a person,” she said. “I was just another number. It didn’t matter. Anything that happened prior to that, it didn’t even matter. It was like okay, you know what, you’re in trouble for doing this and that’s it,” said Cruz.

Although Cruz never had a drug addiction issue, as part of her parole, she had to enroll in the recovery program called La Fuente at Osborne Association which helps women not only overcome addiction but also get access to education, vocational skills, counseling and legal help.

Among female prisoners in 2012, the most recent year available, black females ages 18 to 19 were 3 times more likely to be imprisoned than white females, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Additionally, Hispanic females in this age group had imprisonment rates nearly twice those of white females.

As the state attempts to keep addicts clean and offenders off the streets, it is important to assess whether these statistics skewing towards women of color show biases in the justice system or whether women of color are prey to their own circumstances and the judiciary is in place to lend them a helping hand. The justice system has often been accused of cornering women of color—those in state prisons and those who are imprisoned in their mind—from forcing sentences for minor crimes to distancing mothers from children due to drug habits, the law wrestles with the fine line of using involvement with drugs as a defining factor for the character profile of women of color.

America’s War On Drugs

The almost 800 percent increase in women’s imprisonment over the last decade is a byproduct of high mandatory sentencing even for the minor players of the drug trade—as women often are—who are not directly involved but often accompany an offender or happen to socialize in the area. Many women have been subject to the harsh mandatory sentencing because of their locality, company and associations.

Frequently, women involved in drug charges end up in prison with little or no awareness of the legal consequences of their actions. Although, that doesn’t justify their doings, there is little empathy for the misinformed. Dorothy E. Roberts, an internationally recognized scholar, public intellectual, and social justice advocate, attributes black vulnerability to crime. The negative impact on people of color is an accumulation of inaccessible social rights— educational exclusion, poor if any job possibilities, and the general economic crisis in the context of 21st century racism has strained the responsibilities that befall black America, in her paper, ‘The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration In African American Communities.’

Eighty-four percent of women imprisoned for drug crimes are behind bars for non-violent offenses, usually related to their drug dependence or social marginalization, according to a 2012 report for the Bureau of Justice Assistance that surveyed nearly 500 inmates in urban and rural jails across many states throughout the U.S. Many of these women may themselves have been substance abusers, but there is no reformative attempt. Instead, they are caged behind bars.

“It’s unfortunate that often Black parents are separated from their children because we criminalize the poor. A lot of people who end up in prison get sent there because of committing crimes to support themselves and their families. If our society really cares about the overwhelming number of people in prison, it has to make an effort to give people livable wages, a way out of debt and generations of poverty. Prisons are not the answer,” said Moya Bailey, a scholar of critical race, feminist, and disability studies currently based at Northeastern University.

Justice Blinded By Color?

Addicted to drugs since the age of eighteen, on and off, Licia has only now enrolled in the same outreach program as Cruz at the Osborne Association, with the hope of getting custody of her nine-year-old son if she stays clean. Her three children, two boys and a girl, live with their father in North Carolina and not knowing when she can see them next has given her the courage to get help. But why do women of color need to be at the ends of their wit to reach out to the legal system?

Young Licia and her then boyfriend—now husband— were randomly stopped and searched on the road. Having grown up as part of a predominantly black neighborhood in Queen’s village, this was hardly out of the ordinary but Licia lost her faith in the police that day.

“It was two male officers so one made [my boyfriend] face away from me while they frisked him and the other one frisked me. At the time, I had no idea that a male officer couldn’t search a woman. He was feeling all over me and it felt strange but I didn’t know better. I had no clue that they were supposed to call in a female officer. Now I understand why they made him face the other way so he couldn’t see,” said Licia, now 39, who asked her nickname to be used. The officers did let the two of them go, but the bitterness of the event still pervades Licia’s thoughts. “When I found out, that made it even worse for me, I don’t trust the police for anything.”

It took Licia over two decades to trust the system and she isn’t the only one. Many women come to Osborne and other such organizations after their lives have been drained of everything. They don’t believe that the American justice system is there to lend a hand— it’s the last resort in times of desperation. Where men of color front race battles and white women become the face of gender discrimination, the woman of color—who has the worst of both worlds—lays silent, as did Licia.

Why Women of Color Don’t Trust The Law

“ The 80s crack cocaine problem in the inner city was treated punitively. These women were sent to jail and the children were orphaned—some got put into foster care and others were placed with a relative,” said Tammy L. Anderson, Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at The University of Delaware.

“In my book, neither an incarcerated parent nor the child of an incarcerated parent is a victim. But also, the best thing we can do for those kids is to get their parents drug and alcohol free and back into society as soon as possible. If a child is passed around multiple foster homes with little or no adult supervision, they are likely to see stuff in neighborhood and emulate it,” said Anderson. “Often, they don’t finish school. They don’t have anyone telling them they can be anything. They have no resources; no one is taking them to after school programs for cultural capital and skills that they need; there is no one to pay for them.”

When children are cut adrift with parents caught up in criminal justice system, schools have to pitch in and other community members have to pitch in, Anderson recommends. Our society hasn’t been doing that for the 2 million children who currently have a parent in jail.

Street-level sweeps over four decades after President Nixon raged the ‘War on Drugs’ still instills fear—the legal strife of being victimized by the wave of mass incarceration is not the only concern plaguing women of color. The fight against drugs was not limited to the law and it did not only cage the women behind bars, but the growing crack cocaine problem in the 80s impaired the independence of many women who were prisoners to their addiction in their own homes and were hesitant to reach out for legal assistance.

Before even getting to the point of engaging with the justice system, it is important for an addict to recognize their problem and be proactive about solving it. The addiction is overpowering enough to place addicts in denial and stop them from seeking help.



“I sort of withdrew even more from my family because no one actually knew. I was hiding it. The distance that was already there just became more. I only had a couple of friends when I got older and I stopped spending as much time with them,” said Licia.

Since Licia’s husband was the one to introduce her to drugs, it became her rope to cling on to their relationship. For a long time, the drug abuse was the only thing they had in common. Outside of that, they really didn’t get along. Eventually she didn’t do any drugs for a while and amidst all the stress—“my relationship, not being happy, didn’t like where I was, didn’t have any friends”—she started abusing again.

The Undoing Of A Normal Life

Both men and women have difficulty getting access to treatment, but women who abuse drugs are often more inhibited when it comes to seeking help. Practical concerns of cost, parenting and heightened social stigma of being a female addict, all contribute to the hurdles women face.

“Work, it was hard. I maintained working but sometimes I would go to work high but eventually I wasn’t working anymore. I can’t say that it was necessarily due to the drug habit but I don’t know,” Licia says, appearing to be convincing her own self that the drug problem had not taken charge of her life to that extent. After a pause, she gives in to herself and chuckles out of self-pity. She says, “I’ve worked so many jobs. I was a job hopper. Matter of fact, [my personal life] had a lot to do with it.”

Anderson also stresses how important housing arrangement is for staying off of drugs and a life of crime. The three pieces of advice she gives to mothers who are stuck in a vicious cycle of abuse and violence are to “find another housing arrangement where one doesn’t have to co-reside with their abuser, find a source of own legitimate employment and stay clean.”

Licia still speaks well of the man who has laid his hands because her children, whom she hopes to have with her soon, still continue to reside with him in North Carolina. “He was always a great dad, he was just a crappy husband. He was horrible to me but he was great to them,” she reassures herself, holding back tears.

“I guess that I did a really good job at hiding it. They were shocked but not disappointed or upset with me because I didn’t actually let everything fall apart for them because of it,” said Licia. “Everything fell apart for me and inside me.”

The Poor Mother’s Plight

“More than four in ten female-headed families with children are poor.”

“More than half of all poor children lived in families headed by women.”

“More than one in five children – over 16 million – are poor.”

These three key findings by the National Women’s Law Center work in tandem to highlight the socioeconomic effects that can often be drug-related concerns. Adding more of a burden on single-mother parenting are a host of barriers to obtaining housing, employment, education and subsistence benefits for themselves and their children — including bars on receiving governmental assistance, such as Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families— especially if they have been convicted previously. Licia only meets her children on the off chance that her husband brings them over from North Carolina. Another participant of the La Fuente program, Jessica Lopez, 26, has not met her five-year-old son in over three and a half years.

Jessica Lopez has been

Jessica Lopez

“Missing my son, missing being able to hold him when I go to bed, missing watching him laugh, and not being able to be there for his birthdays and stuff like that [drove me to give up drugs]…and surrender myself to an outreach program,” said Lopez.

She lost custody of him approximately four and a half years ago because she was struggling with staying abstinent from drugs and was refusing treatment at the time. Although she didn’t face a prison sentence, her struggle with the law was apparent. Lopez ended up getting a call from Administration of Children’s Services by her son’s godparents. In denial and rebelling against the system, Lopez wouldn’t appear at court. She also had a lot of relationship issues with the baby’s father and decided at that point that it was time to move away.

She went to Puerto Rico, attempting to stay abstinent. Soon after, she ended up returning to New York because there were more drugs out there than here and it was harder to stay abstinent. Although they had programs to go to, you had to have access to a vehicle to get there and Lopez did not have a license.

During her school years, she used to go to stairwells to drink alcohol, walk out of school to smoke and come back and pretend like nothing happened. She started abusing at the age of 12 because her family always had drugs around. Her father is still an active abuser. Both of Licia’s parents were also drug addicts.

Exposure to Abuse

People like Licia and Lopez were born in households with drugs and they showed signs of predisposition to abusing drugs, as do millions across the nation. 8.3 million children under 18 years of age lived with at least one substance-dependent or substance-abusing parent, based on data spanning 2002 to 2007, collected by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Around 7.3 million lived with a parent who was dependent on or abused alcohol and about 2.2 million lived with one who abused illicit drugs. Therefore, the process of drug prevention must begin at home.

Bottling your own emotions will not only break you down mentally and physically but it will restrict the dialogue between women of color wherein they will yet again stop viewing the state as an asset and not use the tools available at their disposal.

In 2012, an estimated 23.1 million Americans (8.9 percent) needed treatment for a problem related to drugs or alcohol, but only about 2.5 million people (1 percent) received treatment at a specialty facility, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Lopez advices, “ My biggest suggestion would be if you are active, seek an outpatient program, seek a fellowship with other recovering addicts that actually understand what you’re going through. And don’t hold it in, just talk about it with other recovering addicts so you can learn how to get through it.”

Turning Your Life Around

Often, we may never know who is suffering until the police are at their door knocking and dragging them away the next moment. The stigma is here to stay and it will continue driving women of color to suppress their need to seek help. However, if women of color view the experience as a turning point in their lives—not just a low point—they can regain charge of their lives.

Lopez and Licia are trying to get on their own two feet in order to gain financial stability to support the children that they have lost. Luckily for them, the children are with the fathers and even though Lopez is not permitted to visit her son by order of law, Licia at least gets to see her kids from time to time. Both the mothers are at Osborne to educate and reinitiate themselves into normal society.

Cruz faced a reduced sentence because she enrolled in New York State’s Shock Incarceration program, which provides nonviolent offenders the opportunity to reintegrate themselves back into society through substance abuse treatment, academic education and other help and the goal of the boot camp is to develop law-abiding citizens.

“ Yeah, I lost out on a lot of time. Then I have this record. I’m a felon,” said Cruz. “Although, lots of people say that’s gonna be something that’s gonna follow me, I gained so much from being locked up. Sometimes, time’s going so fast, the days are going by so fast, that we don’t appreciate the small things that we have but when that’s taken away from you and you don’t know for how long that’s gonna be taken away, it teaches you how to be so much more grateful for the things that you do have…And sometimes a bad situation like that, I think, can really give a moment of enlightenment. I learned so much about myself and I feel like if I overcame that, there’s nothing I can’t overcome.”

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