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Marsha Fairbanks has battled drug addiction for 23 years.

Her drug abuse has its roots in her molestation by a 31-year-old man when she was only 12, she said. She started using drugs shortly after.

“It’s never been about the drugs and getting high,” she said. “It’s always been about numbing the pain that I feel.”

Fairbanks, an inmate at the East Boise Community Reentry Center, an alternative to prison, said she has been to prison three times, each for drug convictions. After serving her second prison sentence, she finished college, paid off debt and regained custody of her children. She was sober for 3 1/2 years before relapsing.

Though she's now in a reentry facility and not in prison, Fairbanks has been part of a growing demographic in Idaho and across the country: women behind bars.

Idaho, mirroring a national trend, is seeing more women going to prison than ever before. In 2016, the state had the fourth-highest incarceration rate of women in the nation, according to the Sentencing Project, a decades-old D.C.-based research group.

The number of women in Idaho prisons has grown 23 percent in the past two years, from 950 in 2016 to 1,178 as of Aug. 31. The male prison population only grew by 7 percent in that time.

“We’ve certainly seen an increase in the female population,” said Ashley Dowell, chief of Division of Prisons for the Idaho Department of Correction. “It’s our fastest-growing population in prison right now.”

Women make up about 13 percent of Idaho's prison population.


Nationally, the number of women in prison or jail grew eightfold from 1980 to 2016 — an increase from 26,376 female inmates to 213,722, according to the Sentencing Project. 

County jails aren't immune to the problem. Ada County has seen a roughly 50 percent increase in its female inmate population in the past five years, and Canyon County's female inmate population has more than tripled since 2013.

The issue has become so acute in Canyon County, county commissioners last week approved a contract to put modified storage trailers in the jail parking lot to house as many as 122 female inmates.

Canyon County Sheriff's Capt. Daren Ward told county commissioners in May that the “continually rising” female inmate population was the biggest cause of concern for jail staff.

“We are over our target population, and we are over our maximum bed population of females,” Ward said.


Like Fairbanks, more than a third of women in Idaho prisons are serving terms for drug crimes.

Fairbanks' most recent relapse, she said, was due to a number of things, including losing custody of children, her mother moving away, her aunt dying, her uncle crashing his airplane, a new career she started, a new house she bought — all in a month’s time.

“I took on way too much, too fast and I didn’t recognize my warning signs or the people that were potentially going to be hazardous for my life,” she said.

A friend she used drugs with set her up, and Fairbanks then sold methamphetamine to an undercover police officer. She did not commit a violent crime.

Nor do many of the women in Idaho’s prison system.

“Generally women are not in for violence,” Dowell said.

Why the number of women in prison keeps increasing is a complicated question, though. Dowell said Idaho’s explosive population growth is part of it. But, she said, Idaho’s strict drug laws also play a role.

Women often have a different path to prison than men do, she said. She knows of many female inmates who started using drugs because their dating partner did. She also has seen a number of women who dated drug dealers and, by association, were convicted of drug trafficking charges — which then triggered mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

It is a felony to possess any amount of almost any drug in Idaho; the exception is marijuana. It is only a felony to possess marijuana if a person is found to have more than 3 ounces of it.

Idaho has a strict set of "mandatory minimum" laws when it comes to drug trafficking. This means if a person is convicted of a drug trafficking charge, a judge, by law, has no choice but to send them to prison for a set amount of time.

Those laws are designed to dissuade drug dealers from selling drugs in Idaho, but Dowell said she sees addicts convicted of drug trafficking charges, too, because they still possess enough of a drug to trigger the mandatory minimum sentencing. For example, if a person is convicted of possessing a pound of marijuana, or 25 plants, they will automatically receive a yearlong prison sentence. If a person is convicted of possessing 28 grams of methamphetamine, they will receive at least three years in prison.

Amanda Gentry, the warden of the Pocatello Women's Correctional Center, said she knows some of the women in her prison were convicted on drug trafficking charges because they were trying to feed their own addiction.

" need to get high," she said. "Do you think you're just going to have a one-day supply?"

According to the Idaho Department of Correction, 36.3 percent of female inmates are serving terms for drug crimes. By comparison, 30.7 percent, or 2,309 men, are serving prison time in Idaho with drug sentences as their primary convictions, according to Jeff Ray, spokesman for the department. Other male prisoners are serving time in prison for drug charges, but they are not the main reason for their time in prison, Ray explained.

Of female prisoners serving rider terms, 55.1 percent are there because of drugs, and 35.9 percent are in prison for drug-related parole violations. A rider is a treatment program during incarceration, which once completed, a judge determines if the prisoner will serve the rest of the sentence or probation.

Gentry said she knows addiction is a major driver of the population in her female prison. Another 30 percent of women serving terms in IDOC are doing so because of property crimes, and there is a well-established link between property crimes and addiction, because drug users often commit crimes to support their addiction.

"We became aware we're a drug rehab (center) about 10 years ago," she said. "We are Idaho's rehab. This isn't prison and reform, this is rehab and reform. We are very aware that we need to work on addiction (treatment)."


The increase in incarceration rates of women comes at a time when Idaho’s prisons are overcrowded, and the state is considering a $500 million funding request that would include a new prison.

Idaho has even secured a contract to send hundreds of male prisoners to housing in Texas.

But as the state considers building a new prison, lawmakers, judges, and attorneys of the Idaho Supreme Court have met to research and discover potential ways to decrease the soaring prison population. 

These justice reinvestment talks have highlighted issues such as:

  • Idaho is only one of three states that provides prisoners almost no way to earn time off for a good behavior, and
  • Idaho has the highest incarceration rate of any of its surrounding states, but the lowest rate of violent crime. This goes against national research, which shows that more incarceration doesn’t reduce crime, and may actually worsen it, according to a previous Idaho Press report.

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee plans to use findings from research and surveys to develop recommendations to be brought forth to Legislature in January.

House Judiciary Chair Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said changes would need to focus on reclassifying laws, increasing probation and parole funding, improving inmate re-entry, addressing mental health and drug treatment and expanding the prison.

While Idaho works to solve its ever-increasing prison population, an Idaho Press report looked at how Utah has been successful in their efforts to decrease their prison population and crime rates. In 2014, Utah passed legislation reducing all first- and second-time drug possession convictions from felonies to misdemeanors and reducing more than 200 misdemeanors to citations.

From 2015 to 2017, Utah’s prison population dropped 9 percent and the crime rate declined.


Fairbanks’ childhood abuse — and her turn to drugs — is also a common story among women in prisons. Liz Neville, manager at the Boise female reentry center, estimated that three out of four women who are at the East Boise Community Reentry Center have been through some sort of abuse or traumatic event, prior to their incarceration.

Dowell echoed that sentiment.

“(In prison) we tend to see women with a history of trauma,” she said. “It’s difficult to untangle substance abuse, mental health issues and trauma.”

Making matters worse, prison staff only know about a history of trauma if the inmate chooses to tell them, Dowell said. They do what they can to help those with a history of abuse — there are therapy groups in prisons for women who have survived trauma — but it’s still difficult. Many of them self-medicated with drugs to escape their trauma, which is why they are in prison to begin with.

“It’s also hard because prison can be a really tough place emotionally for people,” she said. “It’s not an inherently therapeutic environment.”

And, as Fairbanks did, many women relapse when they leave prison. Dowell sees some of the same inmates return to the system, she said.

Gentry, who runs the Pocatello Women's Correctional Center, also pointed out women's trauma sometimes occurs after they've developed an addiction to drugs, since drug users are more likely to find themselves in dangerous situations with fewer safe relationships. She estimated more than half of the women in her prison have survived some sort of sexual trauma in their lifetimes.

In her experience, many women inmates benefit from their relationships with each other more so than men do, Gentry said.

"The difference between men and women is women will talk about their trauma," Gentry said. In group meetings or Bible studies, she said, "you will hear women talk about their trauma, talk about their childhoods." 

In 2010, the Idaho Department of Correction also added a behavioral health unit to the Pocatello Women's Correction Center to help the increasing number of inmates with mental health disorders. Many of those disorders, in Gentry's experience, stem from the inmates' past traumatic experiences, she said.

Treatment and recovery from trauma is also key for treatment and recovery from addiction, Gentry added.

"If you're going to treat addiction, you have to offer some trauma treatment," she said.


The Boise Community Reentry Center allows low-risk offenders, including drug offenders, an opportunity to prepare for the real world before their prison sentence ends. And like the prison population, the number of residents at Idaho's only reentry center for women has increased.

Maricar Jacoba, who is at the reentry program for trafficking marijuana and is set to leave in November, said the reentry program is described by prisoners as "the magical land on the other side."

"They’re the most sought-after beds in the whole state as far as a female bed goes," Neville, the reentry manager, said. "It’s extremely difficult to get in."

There are three such reentry programs for men in Idaho Falls, Kuna and Nampa, and two more set to be built. Right now, the only reentry program for women is in Boise and holds 124 beds, which are full. By spring of next year, Neville hopes to add beds for 148 more women.

"We'll have no problem filling the beds," she said.

In 2000, 121 women were in the reentry center, 33 percent fewer than the 161 women in the program now. Numbers have fluctuated even more in previous years, according to IDOC records. In 2017, 184 women were in the program and in 2014, 213. Seventy-two women are at the center for a drug-related offenses, according to IDOC records, 41 of which are for possession of a controlled substance.  

Neville sorts through a list of women prisoners who will fit best into the reentry program. Typically, she looks for people who have about six months left in their sentence. Women are usually low-level offenders, such as drug offenses, theft or driving under the influence charges. 

Jacoba is working a job at a downtown restaurant. The women at the program are encouraged to get jobs before their sentence ends. They go on hikes with staff, work out together and are allowed off-site to get counseling.

Neville said at the center women aren't just a number. Often, the staff have met the women's children, are the ones who break tragic news to them and encourage them before their job interviews. 

This center is the closest thing residents will see to real life in the community before their sentence ends, but Neville said the women have to be ready to embrace the change. 

Fairbanks doesn’t credit the reentry program for saving her from her addiction, but said the environment and staff make it so much easier.

“When you’re in a confined community (prison) it’s not the same,” she said. “The environment is not the same, the staff is not the same. Here you get to be normal and actually work on some stuff rather than feel like you’re having to hide behind a facade of trying to be tough in prison.”

Tommy Simmons is the Ada County public safety reporter for the Idaho Press. Follow him on Twitter @tsimmonsipt

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