Drugs and bad boyfriends

More than 71 percent of the 600 inmates in Iowa’s lone prison for women did not commit a violent crime — and many are there for drug-related offenses.

“Women are coming to prison because of drugs, drug, drugs,” said Patti Wachtendorf, warden of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women at Mitchellville.

Speaking to the Carroll Rotary Club recently, Wachtendorf said the drug war, intended to bring down “king-pin” operators helming the illicit trade, is snaring small-time users who commit crimes to feed their addictions.

Twenty years ago, 2 percent of women in prison were there for drug-related offenses. That’s skyrocketed to 35 percent today, Wachtendorf told Rotarians during a noon luncheon at the Carrollton Centre.

The annual cost to keep a woman in prison in Iowa? About $30,000.

Which raises an obvious question: Should marijuana or other drugs be decriminalized in Iowa?

Wachtendorf paused before answering the politically nettlesome question.

“I take care of who the judge sends us,” she said.
But the veteran warden offered another observation.

“I think prisons should be there for violent offenders,” Wachtendorf said.

Wachtendorf pointed out that women have a lower recidivism rate than men coming out of prison ­— 25 percent to 30 percent.

Fewer than 40 of the women in Mitchellville are lifers, meaning the prison, at which Wachtendorf has served since 2001, treats re-entry into society as its primary mission.

Central in that effort is providing programs, through counseling and education, to lift the self-esteem of women so they can enter the workforce and steer clear of poor relationships — what the warden called “loser boyfriends.”

“One of the biggest reasons women come to prison is relationships,” Wachtendorf said.

For example, women involved in child sex crime scenarios generally aren’t the ones committing the actual acts, she said. They allow boyfriends to abuse children because they don’t have the self-esteem or emotional strength to stop the abuse, Wachtendorf said.

The women’s prison also does a good deal of head-trauma testing on new inmates because so many female offenders are themselves victims of domestic abuse, Wachtendorf said.

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