KOLD INVESTIGATES: Women, drugs and Arizona prisons

KOLD INVESTIGATES: Women, drugs and Arizona prisons

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - "It's a joke. There are more drugs in prison than there are in the streets."

That's what Michele Keller said, and she knows what she's talking about.

Keller is a recovering addict who spent more than a decade in and out of prisons in Arizona.

She said she was told "you will never amount to anything, you are a three-time loser."

"I remember thinking to myself ... you're wrong. I'm going to be somebody this time,'" she said.

Against the odds – Michelle became somebody. She got through rehab and got a degree. She's a counselor who helps people who are where she was.

But she's the exception rather than the rule.

Michele Keller. (Source: Tucson News Now)

The American Friends Service Committee advocacy group in Tucson put out a new report about the issue of drugs and prison in our state. You can read the report HERE.

Arizona has the fourth-highest percentage of women in prison in the United States. The No. 1 reason women are jailed is non-violent drug offenses.

Rebecca Fealk wrote the study.

"This isn't a lock-em-up and throw away the key issue," Fealk said. "These are people in our communities. In our prisons, only about 2 percent of people are getting any kind of substance abuse counseling. And there's about 77 percent, according to the Department of Corrections, who have some sort of substance abuse history."

Fealk believes the issue affects all of us for two reasons. First, women are usually caregivers and putting them in prison breaks up families. Second, it's very expensive.

In 2015, Pima County spent more than $8 million to put people behind bars for non-violent drug offenses. For a breakdown of the state funding for education, public safety and more, go HERE.

(Source: Tucson News Now)

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall read the report and said she agrees with a least one thing in it.

"I agree with one statement that was made in that report and that is, incarceration does not help people get clean and sober," she said.

LaWall said while that's true, the report ignores the fact some drug addicts end up committing robberies and frauds to feed their habits. She said keeping the community safe is her top priority.

"You can save this community thousands of crimes by incapacitating the repetitive high-rate offenders," she said. "Are they getting the appropriate treatment when they're in prison? Probably not."

LaWall touts Pima County's Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program.

The program started in 2010 and is the only one of its kind in Arizona.

DTAP has a good success rate helping people who qualify and it saves taxpayers money.

The program costs about $12,000 for more than a year of treatment, while its more than $30,000 for the same amount of time in prison.

LaWall said the program is multi-faceted.

"We don't just do drug treatment," she said. "We give people far more resources than that, we give them education and training. They have temporary housing and we give them food stamps, bus passes and medical assistance."

The program has helped 250 people in those seven years, LaWall said. To listen to LaWall's extended interview with KOLD News 13, go HERE.

Keller said that's not enough.

She was helped by a state program that was killed due to budget issues.

Keller said without support – women in jail tell her they lose hope.

She's tried to help many who've gone back to the streets and to drugs, because they had nowhere else to go.

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