Updated: Nov 7, 2021
"I think you’ll find a lot of this when you’re speaking to people," Breann said frankly, as we started our conversation, "but I was an addict.*
"I didn’t go to jail for drugs," she continued. "I was arrested multiple times for driving without a license; it had been suspended. I had been struggling with addiction for three or four years before I went to Penobscot County Jail. The reason I didn’t have a license is because I was so caught up in my addiction that I basically didn’t pay my fines." "Women feel so ashamed, moms— and I know men do, too, but I’m not a man, so I just don’t know— that they’re addicts, and women seek treatment the least. They don’t want people to know; they don’t want their employers to know; they don’t want their parents to know. And then they end up in jail. "Because it gets too bad and something happens: they end up dealing, they end up— A lot of women in there ended up prostituting, and that was what they were there for. Because they just didn’t have any resources out here. That they end up doing whatever they have to do to get their drugs, and it often just lands us in jail.
"You know, I was one of the lucky ones, to have a good doc, to have an education, to be raised right—right? But when I had my baby when I was 19, I had a C-section and they put me on Percocet, and that was it."
Ultimately, Breann was pulled over on a snowy winter day and found herself unable to avoid jail this time. By this time, she had found her way to medication assisted treatment for substance use. But because her license was suspended, she was arrested, and the court sentenced her to 60 days. "I didn’t wean [off treatment], I didn’t have time," said Breann. "So I just went in knowing I was going to be sick. And I was severely ill for about half of the sentence; for 3-4 weeks I was very ill. So that’s why when I saw this [project], it really spoke to me because I went through some things in there that no human being should ever have to go through." *Though in advocacy we often use terms like substance user, substance use disorder, etc., we respect terms that individuals use to identify themselves when telling their stories.
"I am pretty tough, I can get through things. But it made me wonder who else is in here feeling like I am..."
While in jail, Breann went through untreated withdrawal, which caused a mental health crisis that shook her deeply. "Just me trying to get assistance with mental health, I got none. Trying to get meds took me two and a half weeks, of shaking, crying in the bathroom. It took two and a half weeks to get a nurse to even give me the time of day. "They told me because I was not on [mental health] medication before I went in that I was not eligible. I don’t understand how that is OK. Because I’m pretty tough, I can get through things. But it made me think, “Who else is in here feeling like I am?” And just because they weren’t on [mental health medications] before— And I had been on meds previously, but just because at the time of admission to that jail I was not on any mental health treatment, they completely refused me. There were girls in there getting twenty meds thrown at them—no big deal, right?—but just because when I went in I was not on anything." Breann recalls asking for Remeron, a common antidepressant. "We can’t find a doctor that ever prescribed these for you,” said the nurse. "So we’re not going to prescribe them for you.” "And I was like, “Are you kidding me?" Breann recalled. "You’re telling me that I cannot get treatment for mental health here.” And she’s like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.” And like, snickered, like a little after. Kind of like dangling the carrot, you know? Just— “I have the control and you don’t.” And it’s sick. "You know, if somebody’s in [medication assisted treatment for substances], you continue the treatment! You don’t take addicts off of their maintenance. And then to not treat them for their mental health after they’ve been in withdrawal for 30 days..."
"The way it works," Breann recalled the woman saying, "It will take weeks to get you on [antibiotics]. The doctors are only here on these specific days..."
Breann went on to describe how she was also beginning to have something physically wrong - pain in her abdomen. "I had had a C-section," she said. "But they wouldn’t allow me on the bottom bunk. So I’m 5' 2" and I’m climbing on the top bunk with a fairly fresh wound. And it became infected in there and I kept telling them, there’s something wrong down here.
"The only reason they even put me down in medical to check me out for that was because my mother in law kept calling. She was saying, “She had a C-section within the last six months, there could be something severely wrong.” Her mother-in-law, a nurse, continued to advocate for her-- luckily, she had worked with one of the nurse practitioners who worked within the jail. That, Breann says, is the only reason they even did tests at all, or that they took her temperature. She had a fever. But they didn't take her for scans or more comprehensive tests, ones that were capable of showing infection in her uterus. But it was clear something was wrong, and Breann wanted help. The jail medical staff who ran basic tests instead told her something disturbing: She was "better off" waiting until she got released and then getting antibiotics then. Breann was not about to walk out the door tomorrow; it would be weeks until she got out of jail. "Yeah, the way it works," Breann recalled the woman saying, "It will take weeks to get you on anything. The doctors are only here on these specific days..."
It really was every woman inside PCJ -- it was like, “Oh, why are you here?” “Furnishing. I was caught with drugs. Possession.” Almost every time someone was there with a traffic charge, but it was related to, "I didn’t pay my tickets because I was an addict."
Each participant in the Storytelling Project is asked not only for their own story, but also what they think the community could have been done differently -- how our community could have done better to prevent incarceration, or prevent the harms that occurred during their stay in jail. Breann pointed out that substance use was the driving force of all the women's stories she heard inside PCJ, whether the crime was obviously drug-related or not: "From 2013-2017 when I went [looking for drug treatment], there was just such a lack of resources for addicts. And it’s really why they end up in jail. It really was every woman inside PCJ -- it was like, “Oh, why are you here?” “Furnishing. I was caught with drugs. Possession.” And of course I was there for a revocation, but almost every time someone was there with a traffic charge, but it was related to, ‘I didn’t pay my tickets because I was an addict’ – something related to alcohol or drug addiction." Breann has seen some improvements since her stay in 2018. A family member went to jail about a year and a half ago, and her particular type of medication assisted treatment was continued during her stay because she was already enrolled in a program. Breann remembers a time when people were routinely sneaking their own supply into the jail because of their fear of withdrawal. Though some minor policy changes have occurred around access to MAT and mental health treatment, more recent interviews from PCJ indicate that we still have a long way to go until each person incarcerated in PCJ has access to timely and individualized treatment for mental health crisis. Not all types of MAT are available inside, even if a person is already enrolled in a program before incarceration, meaning that painful and dangerous withdrawals still occur inside PCJ. In particular, access to methadone has been virtually nonexistent for years. Access to mental health care, including appropriate medication and therapy, is still difficult and uncertain.
Interview & portrait by Zeraph Dylan Moore