File this one under the “war on poor women” AND the “war on (certain people who use certain) drugs.”
Anita McLemore has been trying to beat her drug addiction for over fifteen years. It’s been a struggle, not made any easier by the four felony convictions she has amassed during that time. After all, finding a job that pays a living wage and escaping poverty is an enormous challenge even if you’re not a convicted felon.
Hungry and desperate, the Mississippi mother of two turned to the food stamp program for help. There was just one problem. The application included a question about prior felony drug convictions and a statement indicating that convicted drug felons are not eligible for food assistance and deserve to starve to death (okay, it didn’t really say that last part but it might as well have). So McLemore did what just about any mom with hungry kids and no other options would do in this situation. She lied.
For this lie, she has now been sentenced to three years in federal prison (via TGW), followed by three years of supervised release and a $250 fine. Desperate to stay out of prison and remain with her children, McLemore had managed to pay back every penny of the government benefits she received. It made no difference. In fact, U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate went out of his way to impose a sentence much harsher than the 2-8 months of incarceration followed by probation called for by federal guidelines.
The reason? Judge Wingate was disgusted by McLemore’s multiple drug convictions and outraged that the state courts had mostly allowed her to remain out of prison to take care of her children and seek treatment instead of locking her up like the hardened criminal she clearly is.
This case is one more example of blatant injustice in a long line of cases demonstrating that the system treats the haves and the have-nots very differently. Rich bankers commit fraud on a scale so massive it crashes the economy and causes untold suffering, and the system responds by rewarding them with massive government baleouts, in addition to the usual subsidies and corporate welfare. Poor mom commits “fraud” by lying about past drug convictions on her food stamp application so she can feed herself and her kids, and the system responds by sending her to prison for three years, although, unlike the bankers, she has harmed no one and even made full restitution.
This case is also another example of the grave injustice that is the “war on drugs.” Because what McLemore did shouldn’t have been a crime in the first place. I’ve written before about how we treat drug users worse than rapists and this is another example of that. If McLemore’s felony convictions had been for rape or child abuse or armed robbery or murder or any crime other than a drug felony, she would have been eligible for food stamps and there would have been no need to lie and hence no fraud.
We can thank the 1996 welfare reform act for this injustice. Federal law prohibits drug felons from receiving benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), also known as welfare, but the states administering the benefits can opt out of the ban. Most have done just that, either opting out completely or modifying the ban to make it somewhat less punitive. There are, however, about ten states, including Mississippi, Georgia, and West Virginia, that insist on keeping the food stamp ban for drug felons–even though the program is fully funded by the federal government and costs the states nothing. In other words, this ban isn’t about cash-strapped state budgets; it’s entirely about punishing poor people with drug convictions, especially poor women and their children.
As for the four felony convictions and one misdemeanor that so disgusted and outraged Judge Wingate, if you’re poor and addicted to drugs, it’s amazingly easy to rack up convictions once you’re in the system and they’ve got their eye on you. I have friends with more convictions than that, and their lives are a revolving mess of jail, prison, and probation (with mandatory drug testing), interspersed with largely ineffective drug treatment programs.
Why ineffective? Because these programs are not equipped to treat the underlying problem (e.g., rape, child abuse, mental illness) that led to the drug addiction in the first place. Treating the symptom (drug addiction), while ignoring the cause is rarely an effective long-term strategy. Even without an underlying problem, kicking a drug addiction is extremely difficult under the best of circumstances. For people living in abject poverty with no hope or opportunity, the escape that drugs provide can be virtually impossible to give up.
Women face added difficulties because most treatment programs are geared toward male addicts. The last thing female addicts need is a program that further undermines their already badly damaged self-esteem by framing drug use as a moral issue.
Women aren’t supposed to be out of control, so the female addict is keenly aware of her failure as a woman. A man who is out of control is no big deal. It’s almost expected. That, in fact, is part of the reason society insists that women always be in control of themselves. A woman who is out of control is a woman asking for trouble. This is also why so many people blame rape victims who are intoxicated, while letting intoxicated rapists off the hook. Men can’t be expected to control themselves, but a woman who is out of control has only herself to blame for whatever happens to her. In the case of female drug addicts that “whatever” almost always includes sexual abuse, but the drug treatment programs available to low income women rarely offer therapy for sexual assault survivors.
Prison, too, is often harder on women than men, and not just because they are more likely to be the sole caretakers of children. Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted behind bars, more likely to serve a greater portion of their sentence, more likely to be incarcerated far from home, and less likely to have access to a broad array of therapeutic, recreational, job training, and educational programs. With the exception of the sexual assault risk, these disadvantages are all the direct result of women committing fewer crimes than men.
Fewer crimes means fewer women’s prisons, fewer resources in prisons, and less overcrowding (and therefore less incentive for early release). Mississippi, for instance, has no federal women’s prison, so Anita McLemore will be incarcerated out-of-state, making it difficult for her children and friends to visit her. If McLemore was a man, she would be incarcerated in Mississippi. Then again, if she was a man, it is unlikely she would be in this position. And if she wasn’t poor, she certainly wouldn’t be.