When you're in an abusive relationship, it's hard to know right from wrong. This can leave women vulnerable to risky and even criminal behavior—especially if they're supporting a partner's drug habit. Some women end up paying with their liberty.
Illustration by Jennifer Kahn
"If I came back without drugs or money, sometimes he would hit me," Lacey* remembers. "I wasn't the first person to raise a hand—it was always him. I felt obligated to go out and get money. It wasn't just the physical abuse; it was the mental abuse as well. So I'd go out for the both of us, shoplifting to make money. I even sold myself."
Lacey is explaining how the pressure of supplying her ex-boyfriend's drug habit sent her down a path that ultimately ended in prison. Although Lacey was a heroin and crack cocaine user at the time, she believes that if it wasn't for Paul*, she would never have been forced into increasingly dangerous and desperate criminal behavior.
"I had to make ends meet to make sure there were enough drugs for both of us," she says. "There was extra pressure. If I had been on my own, I wouldn't actually have done all of that [sex work and shoplifting]."
Lacey is not alone. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 48 percent of women in England and Wales are incarcerated for crimes they committed to support another person's drug habit. This compares to just 22 percent of men in prison—meaning that women are overwhelmingly more likely to find themselves behind bars as a result of another person's addictions.
Often, women don't realize they've been exploited until years later—as was the case with Lacey. "He manipulated me a lot," she says of Paul. "All the pressure [to procure drugs] was on me." She explains that, as Paul was already known to law enforcement in their small English town, the burden of criminality fell on her.
"It was all on me. We'd go into a shop and he'd steal a bunch of stuff," Lacey explains, "and I'd have to walk out with it, like I was being normal. That happened on more than a few occasions." Other times, Paul would disappear—to beg money from his mom, Lacey says—and demand that she shoplift in his absence.
"He'd say, 'Why don't you go to town and see what you can do?' He knew I was good at shoplifting. I'd feel really awkward about the situation, and I'd have to go," Lacey recounts. "I'd be risking getting arrested while he was just sitting at his mom's, and he was just doing it to get out of the situation so he didn't have to shoplift." Anything stolen would promptly be sold, and the money spent on drugs.
Although progress has been made, criminal justice systems in the UK and the US seldom recognize the extent to which intimate partner drug use can be a factor in female offending. "One of the key differences between women and men in prison," explains Jenny Earle of the Prison Reform Trust, "is that for many women their offending is prompted by their relationships, whereas for men, relationships on the whole are a protective factor [against criminality]."
You go crawling back to that person who gives you a bit of human comfort.
Marriage commonly makes men less likely to commit crimes: One 2006 Harvard study estimates that being married reduces the likelihood that men who are at a high risk of offending will actually go on to commit crimes by approximately 35 percent. However, Earle says that the opposite is true for women who are at high risk of offending, especially those who abuse drugs. "Women are much more likely to associate hard drug use with offending generally," she explains. "There's evidence they may be vulnerable to exploitation because of that."
Perhaps inevitably, in 2000 Lacey was caught shoplifting and subsequently incarcerated. "I can't remember exactly what I stole," she remembers, "it would have mostly been clothes, that sort of thing, or meat, to sell on." As a result of repeatedly failing to turn up for court appearances, Lacey had multiple shoplifting charges rolled into one, and ended up serving a 12 month sentence in London's Holloway prison. Years later, now clean of drugs and in a healthy, stable relationship, she has a clearer understanding of how her youth and substance abuse issues trapped her in a damaging environment. "There was a pattern," she says. "You go crawling back to that person who gives you a bit of human comfort and that goes out of the window of a couple of months, and it becomes a vicious spiral."
Most of the time, women like Lacey stick to low-level crime—like shoplifting, which accounts for 36 percent of all female prosecutions in England and Wales—rather than major or violent crimes. One recent British Ministry of Justice report concluded that women are more likely to commit petty, non-serious crimes than men. But some women do get sucked into more extreme criminal acts when attempting to sustain an abusive, drug-dependent relationship.
I needed him to need me to love me. I thought the only way to get that was through meth.
"It was like being caught in a vortex and I didn't know how to make it stop," remembers Vicki Shaw of her time in an interstate meth smuggling operation. She's emailing me over internal prison messaging service CorrLinks from Waseca, a low-security women's prison in Minnesota, where she is currently serving a 15-and-a-half year sentence.
Like Lacey, Shaw felt obligated to service her boyfriend Richard's drug habit. "It it had only been me, I wouldn't have felt the pressure to always have meth," she writes. "Richard was married at the time but having problems. We started hanging out and doing meth together. Looking back, I realize Richard was a sociopath. Narcissistic. I basically let him screw my head up so much. He lied about almost everything."
When Shaw didn't provide Richard with drugs, he would become distant and cruel. "When I didn't have meth, he treated me like shit," she remembers. "When I had it he put me on top of the earth. The person I was back then needed this. I needed him to need me to love me. I thought the only way to get that was through meth."
While Richard was never physically violent, his behavior fits the pattern of what is commonly be described by psychologists as coercive control. "He cheated, would give me the silent treatment, and lied to me," she says.
Despite this, Shaw says that it was her decision to get involved in organized crime. "I just took the initiative," she says, "Maybe if I hadn't been so proactive, he would have stepped up."
Inevitably, Shaw got caught by the federal authorities—at which case, Richard disappeared. Shaw alleges that prosecutors only took action against her, and that her boyfriend was never arrested because he wasn't seen to be intelligent enough to lead a drug ring. "I don't think it's fair," she says. "He made deliveries to people sometimes. He was involved."
Although Richard was a huge motivation for Shaw's criminal behavior, she was on her ownwhen it came to being sentenced and sent to federal prison. It was, she says, as if he'd never existed.
"We'd like to see improved awareness of the impact of abusive and coercive relationships on women," Earle argues, "and that means that information is being provided to criminal courts pre-sentencing. Information about coercive behavior needs to be in front of the courts at an early stage." Some progress has been made: In the UK, the government's 2016 sentencing guidelines for theft make acting under coercion, intimidation, or exploitation a mitigating factor in reducing criminal culpability in theft, the most common offence committed by women.
For Shaw and Lacey, the consequences of an ex-partner's addiction can last for a lifetime. Freed from the tentacles of drug addiction and coercive control, Shaw sees now how she fell victim to both Richard and her meth addiction. Unfortunately, this clarity won't make the remaining years of her sentence go faster—though she now hopes to advise other women who find themselves in similar situations.
"I never thought I would be sent to prison for this long," she says. "There is nothing and no one worth losing your freedom for. Unfortunately our addictions are so strong that we can't seem to stop on our own and it is not until we hit rock bottom that we finally wake up. I would tell them to think of their children and their family and to think about how their actions will affect and impact them."
* Name has been changed. Illustration by Jennifer Kahn