Women are being incarcerated at a higher rate than ever in Montana and across the nation, and most of them are serving time for non-violent crimes.
Twila Johnke, 36, has been in and out of prison since 2001 for crimes of forgery, drug possession and distribution. Johnke never got to see her oldest son cross the finish line or her youngest son take his first steps.
“I called my son’s mom the other day and he was at a track meet,” said Johnke. “He came in like third. It was cool to hear that he’s doing good. But it’s hard not to be there.”
Like most of the inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison, Johnke is serving time for a non-violent crime.
A 2017 Montana Corrections report revealed that seven out of 10 women, compared to three out of 10 men, are locked up for non-violent crimes. Since 2008, the number of women in prison has grown 34% while the rate of incarceration for men has increased 8%.
Natasha Martin, 41, is just a few months into her 5-year sentence for a drug and alcohol-related crime. She is among the 70% of women at the prison who left behind children. Martin said her last conversation with her 17-year-old son was painful.
“He said ‘mom, when are you going to be the mom I need you to be?’ And I just looked at him and I was like what are you talking about? He said ‘you’re trying to tell me how to live my life when you’re not even living your life right'.”
Martin is no stranger to prison; she’s been incarcerated on five separate occasions all for drugs and alcohol. Martin said she heard her son has run away from home and she fears he’s following in her footsteps.
That’s what happened for Colette Line, 45, who is serving time for theft.
“My children, all three have battled with addiction,” said Line, who admits battling addiction throughout her life. “My older two are struggling through recovery and I say struggling because they’re having a hard time with it.”
It’s a never-ending cycle of substance abuse, one that for many of these women can be traced back to childhood.
“My mom didn’t protect me from the men she was with, whether it was physical or sexual or whatever,” said Johnke, who began self-medicating with alcohol and drugs at age 14. “I don’t know if that has anything to do with the choices I’ve made but not having someone there to protect you has had an impact, I do know that.”
Johnke readily admits that her own choices cost her her freedom, but research shows traumatic experiences can lead to substance abuse and other criminal behavior.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences scoring system is a new tool to gauge trauma in order to address the root of emotional issues. According to the DOC report, people who score six or higher are at risk of shortening their lifespan by 20 years. The average score for a woman tested was 6.6.
Martin said she had a strong support system, but she lost several friends to suicide in high school and not long after, she suffered a miscarriage.
“I delivered a set of twins at 27 weeks gestation and they died,” said Martin. “One (died) eight hours after birth and the other six days later. It was a never part of grief that I buried down and it’s something I never dealt with.”
The Women’s Prison has just three full-time counselors to serve the prison’s more than 200 inmates. The classes for substance abuse -- as well as parenting are offered -- but the inmates say the wait list is long.
“Ultimately the change happened within myself,” said Martin. “But when the hand is reaching out for help, another hand should be reaching back.”
But the process of recovery is different for everyone. For Line, who has been in and out of prison since 1998, access to treatment isn’t the problem. “I’ve been in treatment here, I’ve been to MCDC in Butte, I’ve done outpatient treatment, drug court,” said Line.
But Line said when it comes to a support system outside the prison walls, she must start from scratch. “We have a pastor that comes in here and he always says show me your friends and I’ll show you the rest of your life,” said Line.
Line and Johnke were set to be released from prison earlier this week and sent to the pre-release program once again. They told MTN News that this time will be different.
“If you just make the next choice the right one, it will keep me out of here,” said Johnke who dreams of watching her son run from the sidelines. But when one-in-three inmates return to prison within three years of release, the right choice has hurdles of its own.