FOX19 EXCLUSIVE: Women in crisis

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The heroin epidemic among women is creating a crisis at the Hamilton County Jail.

Unlike male inmates who are now required to see a judge before they are released, jail officials have had to process and release over 325 female inmates since January due to a lack of space.

FOX19 spoke with three women: two who were sentenced on heroin related charges and one woman who is in the process of recovery after 15 years of living on the streets.

"We're not bad people, just made bad choices I guess," an inmate who asked to be identified as Amber said wiping away tears.

"When I'm out there I'm not thinking about the consequences of what I'm doing because drugs is all that matters when you're out there," fellow inmate Jessica admitted. "When you wake up you're sick and it's something that you need every day just to move and to do everyday things."

None of the women who spoke with FOX19 are from Cincinnati.

"We go to urban areas because that's where we can hustle and buy the dope," recovering addict Beth explained.

"They're not coming from the city at large," echoed Major Charmaine McGuffey. "They're coming from the neighborhoods that you and I live in because they're drug addicted, they're substance abusers."

For Amber it was losing the job she had for over a decade that first got her involved with heroin.

"I got scared," she said. "I didn't know, how was I going to pay for this? What am I going to do? So they said 'If you can come up with 80 dollars I can take you to Cincinnati and you can buy this and if you sell it you can make 400 dollars'."

Jessica says as she struggled to deal with her mom's death from cancer and began taking her prescription medications.

"It progresses from the pill, to the heroine and you'll snort the heroin, then you want to shoot the heroin and it's just done from there," she said.

While the addiction is the same, the crimes women commit to get heroin are not.

"I wasn't supposed to turn out as I did so it was very, very embarrassing for me to even say the word prostitute," Beth shared. "I always referred to myself as a hustler."

Trafficking and theft were the other avenues the women admitted they had taken to get a fix.

"The crime was committed in order to get the dope," Beth explained. "If I was never a drug addict I would not have had a record."

The epidemic is so great, there is simply not enough room for all of the women arrested in Hamilton County to be jailed.

"There's girls in there sleeping on the floors, sitting up all night," Jessica said. "It's ridiculous how crowded it is in here and nine out of ten are heroin addicts and they're detoxing, they're puking everywhere."

"There's not enough room in the jail and they do the process and release which helps you accumulate charges so I would go in sometimes with 19 or 20 warrants for my arrest," Beth said.

McGuffey says the goal is to hold onto the women and get them into viable treatment programs.

"The problem with me is I might be in jail and I might start getting that desire that 'I can do this,' and then they'd throw me out the door," Beth recalled. "I had no where I could go like this, where I could kind of ease back in."

"Once they let you back out you're going to go right back and use unless you get some sort of help," Amber said.

Beth says incarceration was never enough for her to get sober, just enough to get rested up to go back out.

"That's where I went to clean up, look a little better, get my mind straight, gain some weight, come back out to do the same thing," she explained.

"If we let them right back out the door they know there's no hope," McGuffey told FOX19.

Major McGuffey is working to change that. She has created a group called WRAP made up of jail and court system staff that meet once a week along with community resources. WRAP stands for Working to Refer Appropriate Placement.

"Some people have to stay in jail, they should be in jail because of the level of crime they've committed," McGuffery recognized. "But there's a lot of people out there who need some help with managing their lives, people who need help managing drug addictions and this is the future here."

She says the goal is not to create more space simply to house women, but to create lifelines so the women can help themselves.

"If we can find an effective intervention point to reach out to the women and help them with the underlying issues versus what the behavior is that landed them in the criminal justice system then we're getting ourselves ahead of the game," Mary Carol Melton explained.

Melton is on the WRAP committee and runs the Off the Streets Program through Cincinnati Union Bethel. Off the Streets is a program which helps women involved in prostitution move towards recovery and empowerment.

"If we can get women into treatment first, instead of incarceration, we're going to be helping everybody in the system: the women, the courts, and the community," she told FOX19.

Beth is a testament to the program's success, but all the women agree no one can force women into recovery.

"Until an addict is absolutely ready there is no one or nothing that can stop them from getting high," Beth emphasized.

"If somebody wants to use they're still going to use," Amber said. "Don't matter how long they're kept here."

With more hands extended, however, the likelihood women will grab hold only increases.

"A lot of it was times, even though I wasn't ready to get clean at that time, little seeds were planted," Beth recalled.

Those seeds of support and realization can take root and help women when they are ready break through the barrier of addiction.

"After you're here with people and they're clean and they look better, you have better discussions and you're like 'Wat the hell was we thinking? How did we get there?'" Amber questioned.

"If you desire a different life it's definitely possible," Beth said. "If I can sit here and say that, it is so possible."

The WRAP group has identified a number of different resources to help women, but they recognize clear needs remain including funding, a new type of jail that is equipped to deal with mental health and addiction issues, and more detox facilities.

McGuffey says the sheriff is also working to create more space for the female population inside of the jail.

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