This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

In July 2005, Terry Garrett, who was then 38, walked into a Kinko’s in Alexandria, Virginia, cut the power cords connected to the nearest register, and walked out with it and its drawer full of cash. It was around 7 p.m., and no customers were in the store, only employees, who were in the back. There was about $2,000 in the register, and Garrett says she spent it all on crack.

The officers caught up with her the next day. In the past, Garrett would have fought her arrest, but that time she didn’t. “I didn’t scream and fight and say it wasn’t me,” she says. “I just said, “OK, let’s go.” She’d been on the streets, addicted to crack, since she was 21. Age and exhaustion had caught up with her. “I just said, ‘I can’t keep doing this,’” she says. “I decided to do something different.”

Garrett spent seven months in jail in the city of Alexandria, a Washington suburb of about 150,000 residents. She got clean and sober. She tried to reach out to her four children, who had been raised by relatives or in foster care. They were suspicious that she’d really changed. “There were a lot of broken promises over the years,” Iterria Garrett, her oldest daughter, who is now 31, says. Also, they believed whatever she accomplished for herself in jail happened in an artificial environment. “Everybody gets clean in jail,” Iterria says. The real test would be when her mother got out.

One of the consequences of the decades-long drug war has been that, in the past two decades, the number of women in jail and prison has skyrocketed—increasing at double the rate of men. As of 2013, there are 104,134 in state and federal systems combined, according to The Sentencing Project, a prison-reform research and advocacy group. About a third are in for drug-related crimes, and are much less likely than men to be violent offenders.

Unlike men, most of the women who are sent to prison have dependent children in their custody or in the care of relatives whose lives are disrupted by their mother’s incarceration. And many of the women in prison have experienced trauma, sexual abuse, or violence, and have untreated mental-health problems that they’re self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. “Prison has become the de facto mental-health institution in the United States,” says Danielle Rudes, a professor of criminology at George Mason University in Virginia.

Though the vast majority of prisoners are men, as more and more women have gone to jail, services available to them during and after prison haven’t kept up with the increasing need. That’s especially true once prisoners are released. Northern Virginia, where Garrett is from and where she hoped to return after finishing her sentence for petty larceny, has only one halfway house for women, Friends of Guest House in downtown Alexandria. It serves about 17 women at a time and sees only about 66 women go through its program each year.

Faced with prison budgets spiraling out of control, most state governments, run by Democrats or Republicans, are considering letting their nonviolent offenders leave early. In the fall, the federal system released 6,000 non-violent offenders early nationwide in an effort to reduce overcrowding and costs. A report released this week by a congressional task force, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, recommended releasing 60,000 more federal prisoners over the next ten years. Most released inmates go to halfway houses. But if they don’t want to stay in a halfway house, they’re often barred from staying in public housing, even with family. Around the country, most prisoners return to a few neighborhoods—mostly poor, African-American and Latino enclaves in big cities.

Garrett’s troubles began before she was born. Both of her parents were alcoholics. “I knew something was wrong because I was wondering why we could never wake up our dad,” she says. “Why he was always passed out wherever he was?”

Other drinkers and drug users were in and out of the house she shared with her parents, older brother, and younger sister in Old Town Alexandria, and there was always alcohol around. She says her dad was abusive, and that she’d see him beat her mom daily. Her parents had house parties, and she would clean up afterward because she didn’t want her grandmother to see when she came over to get them ready for school every morning. She’d take sips from near-empty beer cans and cups as she picked them up, and now dates the beginning of her alcoholism to age 7.

Before she turned 8, she and her younger sister went to live with her grandmother in nearby and then-relatively rural Springfield. She says that in the midst of abusive episodes at the hands of her grandfather who died when she was 13, she’d become accustomed to sneaking away whatever liquor bottles she could find and drinking until she blacked out. She’d slip away and take the bus to the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, where she’d party at night.

By 15, Garrett started to have serious boyfriends, most of whom were abusive. In 1984, Garrett, at 16, had her first daughter. She had three more kids by the time she was 21, moving back and forth between abusive boyfriends and her grandmother’s house. Her children were sent to live with their grandmother at first, and then taken by the foster-care system. (When Garrett was 17, her mother—still an addict and alcoholic living on the street—was killed.)

She said she smoked crack for the first time after the birth of her youngest, a boy she called Mikey. A friend gave it to her. “He said it would feel good,” she says. “And it did.”

This was the beginning of her addiction. Sometimes, Garrett would hold down a job and pay for a hotel room, or she’d find a short-term apartment, but for the most part she was living on the streets in downtown Alexandria, sleeping in abandoned cars near an a auto repair shop lot and showering at a day shelter downtown. To get money, she shoplifted, rotated through odd jobs, panhandled, and worked as a sex worker.

In retrospect, she says that’s how she dealt with the trauma of her abuse and untreated depression, but that’s not how it felt at the time. “I didn’t feel depressed,” she says.” I was having a good time.” That is, unless she ran out of drugs. “Then, I’d start thinking about all the stuff that had happened,” she says. “I didn’t want to feel that stuff, so I knew if I used something I wouldn’t feel it until I came down again. I tried to stay intoxicated with something.”

The police come in contact with people with mental illnesses in a variety of ways.

Sometimes they’re called to a scene because someone with a severe mental illness is suffering from an acute episode and has become violent or disruptive, but those are unusual. Some police departments around the country—though by no means all—are trained to deal with such episodes in ways that divert someone who needs help into treatment rather than jail.

But the more mundane facts are that many people in this country end up in the criminal system for reasons less obviously due to their mental health problems. Their lives are shaped by unresolved trauma and untreated illness, as Garrett’s were, but there’s nowhere for them to turn to help.

Encouraged by her AA sponsor, Garrett started to make jewelry and sell it. It makes her some money, but mostly she enjoys jewelry-making because it is calming. (Emily Jan)

This has led to a high proportion of the prison population being made up of those who suffer from mental illness—the Sentencing Project says that almost 25 percent of women in prison have a mental illness. “Trauma is a central organizing factor in people’s lives,” said Kana Enomoto, acting administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, while addressing a Council of State Governments Justice Center last month. Enomoto was speaking about the need to coordinate mental health care in the criminal justice system and the community at large, and wanted trauma to be a consideration as well. “We cannot address one without the other, otherwise we continue in this revolving door of going from system to system to system, with the unresolved trauma affecting not only the individual, but their families and those around them who are trying to support them.”  

When Garrett vowed in 2005 that this time would be different, she started to attend a group in prison called Women Empowered for Change, and found that many other prisoners had the same stories of childhood abuse, physical abuse from romantic partners, and drug use. It helped to know she wasn’t alone. Toward the end of her sentence, she met with Kari Galloway, executive director of Friends of Guest House. Galloway often visited prisons to invite women to apply to stay once their sentence ended. For Garrett, there was no question: Friends of Guest House was exactly what she needed.

Experts know that when ex-offenders reenter the community, one of the most important factors in their success is whether they stayed connected to mental-health care in a seamless way. Otherwise, their condition may be exacerbated, and they could end up right back in jail.

The Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections recommended that some of the savings that the federal government achieves by releasing more prisoners early be reinvested in community support organizations, mental-health care both before and after release, and organizations like Friends of Guest House, so that they can help more people and do so more effectively. “As a field, we have a lot of work to do,” Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel said. “The challenge for the federal system is that systems are most effective when they are able to individualize decisions, especially as it relates to reentry….Absent reinvestment, that would be difficult.”

At first, Garrett seemed eager and ready to cooperate at Friends of Guest House. Galloway says that’s common. “Sometimes people send a representative of themselves when they’re first getting to meet you. We all do that right?” Galloway says. At the time, residents stayed for six months, and they had, and still have to, follow rules many adult women chafe against. They weren’t allowed to accept rides off the property from people unless the drivers were registered with Guest House. They weren’t allowed cell phones. They simply were not in charge of their lives. “I’m pretty sure everybody breaks the rules at some point,” says Galloway.

Soon, Garrett was accepting rides from the house from people who weren’t properly registered, and her destinations were different from the ones she gave staff. She was caught.

Angry and defiant, Garrett decided to leave. “She was on the edge of the chair in my office, arguing with me, and she was going to leave. She went and got her little Safeway bag with all of her worldly possessions sitting in one little plastic bag,” Galloway recalls. It was late on a Friday, and Galloway told her they’d have a hard time finding a place for her to go to so close to the weekend. “I said, ‘Look, you’ve got a beef with me, that’s OK. Why don’t you just take the weekend to think about it.’” Garrett decided to stay the weekend, and ultimately decided to stay. She went to her room, and cried, and gave herself over to what she calls her higher power. “On Monday, I had a letter on my desk, an apology, and she’d apologized to the rest of the staff,” Galloway says. “For whatever reason, Terry Garrett decided to be something different.”

Garrett stands in her living room, which is decorated with photos of her family. (Emily Jan)

It was at Friends of Guest House that Garrett first had her mental health diagnosed. “I said, I’m not crazy!” she says she told the psychiatrist. She also had been HIV positive since at least 1994. While a doctor told her the disease was not progressing, she started to take medication regularly, eat healthfully, and understand that drug use and alcohol had taken an unnecessary toll on her body.

The staff and volunteers she met through Friends of Guest House, Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, and other programs, connected her to new opportunities as well. Encouraged by her AA sponsor, Pat Collins, she started to make jewelry and sell it.  She began to volunteer at a food bank. The women who supported her, like Collins and Louise Anderson, who knew of Friends of Guest House through her church, became true friends and mentors. When she graduated from Friends of Guest House in 2007, after seven months, and later got an apartment on Richmond Highway, these became the people she called when life caught up with her.

By the time Garrett was in her apartment, she’d reconnected with her children, now adults. They all had children: Garrett had 13 grandchildren, and she resolved to be a good grandmother to them in ways she’d never been a mother to her own children. Since she left Friends of Guest House, Garrett has become a speaker on behalf of the organization, and visited schools and other venues to reach out to at risk youth and women who’ve gone through the same thing.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.