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Thirty-six percent of women surveyed said they were unable to get needed help for an alcohol or substance abuse problem. These women also reported having been detained more times. Clearly, untreated addictions have a direct correlation to increased detention rates and lower rates of employment. Women’s problems with drug use were also intergenerational: those who have such prob- lems were more likely to have parents or primary caregivers who had such problems. Women who reported being survivors of childhood or adult violence were also more likely to have problems with substance abuse- possibly as self-medication to deal with trauma caused by prolonged exposure to violence. The vast majority of women did not have a medical card or money to get treatment, and many simply said that help was not available either inside or outside of jail.

RECOMMENDATION: Increase resources for community- based inpatient and outpatient treatment programs that provide holistic, gender-specific models of care to accom- modate women immediately upon request and that provide linkage to women in jail.


“If I was getting the benefits that I needed, I wouldn’t have been in the situation to commit the crimes.”

In the 12 months prior to entering Cook County Jail, 29 percent of the women surveyed had been cut off from or had an application denied for some form of government assistance. The majority of women in jail need assistance with housing and substance abuse; however, only 10 percent were ever recipients of Section 8 housing vouch- ers, and 34 percent were cut off of medicaid. A primary reason for being cut off was missing an appointment. Because many women surveyed did not have custody of their children, they will not be eligible for TANF benefits and will need financial assistance as a bridge. Thirty- three percent of women who were not working reported they had looked for work in the 30 days prior to entering jail, but only 5 percent of all women were receiving unemployment compensation. Among the top barriers to employment were lack of transportation, childcare needs, and constant illnesses, issues for which women can receive assistance through existing benefits but many were not.

Photo by Anice Schervish

According to change in welfare regulations women who commit the most serious drug-related (Class X or Class 1) felonies, and were convicted after August 21, 1996, are banned from receiving TANF benefits for life. Less serious drug related felonies trigger a two-year ban after the offense is committed. This ban, however, can be lifted should the person access treatment or an after-care program. Although most women in Cook County Jail are detained for misdemeanor offenses (a few are finishing sentences for felony convictions), repeat arrests, even for misdemeanors, may result in felony upgrades. Barring women from benefits only limits their access to already scarce much needed assistance.

RECOMMENDATION: Create Government assistance programs that meet the specific needs of formerly de- tained women and promote utilization of existing supports including childcare assistance, medical coverage, and transportation assistance. Women should be linked with these services immediately upon release from jail. Conviction of any type should not be a reason to bar women from receiving benefits.

“If I could have gotten help three months ago when I needed it, I would have had an income, and no one could have pressured me into going out there and doing stupid stuff that ended me up here.”


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