Woman Thrown in Jail for Having an Addiction While Pregnant

Supporters of a new law criminalizing drug use during pregnancy say it's supposed to get women treatment. Then why is this woman going to jail?

Last year, Tennessee became the first state to define drug use during pregnancy as a crime. Women whose newborns test positive for narcotic drugs can be charged with assault and punished with up to 15 years in prison. 

When critics of the measure -- which included everyone from addiction counselors to doctors to Obama's drug czar -- pointed out that terrorizing pregnant addicts with the threat of prison would not be helpful in the treatment of their condition, supporters shot back that they didn't want to put women in jail; the law would merely allow prosecutors to help push women into rehab. 

Since the law went into effect in July, most of the women charged with assault for drug use during pregnancy have been placed in treatment programs. Still, as a Nation investigation found, doctors and counselors who work with pregnant addicts also say many women have begun avoiding prenatal care because they're scared of going to jail. Some have fled the state to give birth. 

It looks like their fears are warranted. On Thursday Jamillah Falls, the second woman in the state to be charged with assault after her newborn tested positive for heroin, was sentenced to six months in prison, reports WREG.  Her child is with the Department of Children's services, according to the report. A spokesman for the Shelby County prosecutor's office tells AlterNet that Falls failed to complete the terms of her probation.

Cherisse Scott, founder of the reproductive rights advocacy group SisterReach, doesn't know how Falls allegedly violated her probation, but notes that she's had an exceedingly hard time in the program. After a 28 day detox, Falls was placed at a halfway house in an unsafe neighborhood. She was reportedly stressed out about the criminal charge that hung over her head and heartbroken to be separated from her baby. She had to find a job to stay in the halfway house, no easy feat given that her face had been splashed all over local news as "pregnant heroin addict." Scott says Falls was desperate to find work, even calling her up to see if she had anything at her organization. 

"It's what we feared," Scott tells AlterNet. "Women already dealing with poverty trying to maintain beyond the detox mandate. Now they have to deal with the stress of the court system, of urine samples, appointments."

Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, is saddened but not surprised that Falls will end up in prison.

"This is exactly how this law is intended to work," Diaz-Tello tells AlterNet. "It was never intended to get people help. It's a method for criminalizing women for the outcome of their pregnancy. It bears out all of the warnings that advocates for women's health tried to sound the alarm about."

Although she is not familiar with the specifics of Falls' probation, Diaz-Tello points out that forced drug treatment for the poor looks nothing like how most people picture rehab, based on, say, where celebrities go to clean up their act.

"We think of treatment as being a therapeutic relationship; that it's confidential, that it helps a person get their problem under control. But for people under supervision by the correctional system, it's just another form of state surveillance."

Drug addiction is so hard to cure precisely because it is often rooted in trauma: a majority of female drug addicts have experienced sexual assault or other violence. Poor people without access to mental health care might use drugs to self-medicate, but many treatment programs don't account for the complex interplay between poverty, trauma and addiction. 

"Most court-ordered treatment is not trauma informed, which is important for women," Diaz-Tello says. "People who don't have access to the system do what they can to get by. It's no surprise that people under stress, scrutinized by the state, with the threat of their baby being taken away -- that they would experience stress that could lead them to use again." 

Tana Ganeva is the deputy editor of The Influence. You can follow her on Twitter: @TanaGaneva