JACKSBORO, Tenn. – There was no makeup to put on, no outfit to prepare. There wasn’t even any notice a visitor was coming. It was 2:30 on a weekday afternoon, and some women were roused from sleep by the sound of their cell door unlocking. They were asked if they’d pose for a portrait.
The setting was the Campbell County Jail — where the last time these female inmates looked into a camera, their mug shots were being taken. Some women were in for theft; others for drug possession or parole violations. For all, this stint behind bars was just the latest downward turn in a cycle of addiction and incarceration.
More than a decade ago, there were rarely more than 10 women in this rural Tennessee jail. Now the population is routinely around 60. It’s an example of how the opioid epidemic is fueling the fastest-growing correctional population in America: Women.
Michelle Leopard estimates she’s been in and out of this jail 30 or 40 times for aggravated burglary, theft of property, trespassing, probation violations and more. Every time she’s released, she hopes to stay clean, but the reality of life on the outside quickly crushes those plans.
“We’ve always been a happy family. And then it seems like we moved to Campbell County, and everything just started falling apart. I don’t know if it’s because of the drugs here, but it pulls you in. The air is different here. It smothers you,” Leopard says. “Down here, there is no kind of resources for women to get the help that they need. (I’m) always scared about ending up back in jail.”
In 2015, Campbell County had the third-highest amount of opioids prescribed per person of all U.S. counties. There’s no treatment available in the jail for the women, no counselling or chance to work, no other courses other than a high school equivalency diploma program. Lt. Mallory Campbell, assistant jail administrator, would like to offer more, but there isn’t money for programs or staff.
For most women here, jail is a temporary pause from the only way of life they’ve ever really known. Blanche Ball learned to cook meth at home at the age of 15. Sarai Keelean once spent Christmas in a cell with her mother, who also is an addict.
On the inside, they bond, while relationships with those on the outside crumble. Children wind up in state care or are turned over to relatives. Grandparents become parents, yet again. And with each day that passes, the women dream of mending broken ties and changing their ways.
“I’m so thankful that he still loves me,” says Krystle Sweat of her 10-year-old son, Robby. “He’s disappointed in me. … He doesn’t say that he is, but I know he is. I hope that eventually he will be able to somewhat understand … but I hope that he can see it as a lesson for himself (so) that he will never stray down this path.”