Gender and Critical Drug Studies: The Gendered Origins of Privatized Prison Drug Treatment

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Jill McCorkel, associate professor of sociology ad criminology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. In it, she explores the origins of how drug treatment and rehabilitation programs entered private prisons for women. Her full article appears in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!

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Dr. Jill McCorkel

I was recently in a taxi on my way to a speaking engagement in Dublin, Ireland. When the driver asked me what I’d be discussing, I told him I research prison privatization. “Ahh, yes,” he said, “the corporations run the American prisons and that’s why you have such a problem over there. They want everyone in prison. More prisoners, more profit!”

Although legal scholars would likely challenge his claim on the grounds that comparatively few prisoners in the U.S. are held in private prisons, his comments are not entirely off base. Over the last 30 years, private companies have become increasingly influential players in the American prison system. The source of their ascendancy is not private prisons. Rather, it is in the provision of a vast array of services ranging from cafeteria food to phone cards, medical care to behavioral health programming. Private companies contract with local, state, and federal authorities to provide these services in publicly managed prisons, jails, and community-based correctional facilities. The contracts are a lucrative source of profit and require little in the way of oversight. The duration and scope of privatized correctional services vary, but among the most profitable are contracts that involve the provision of drug treatment programming to prisoners, parolees, and pretrial detentioners. Drug treatment and related rehabilitative services are a multi-billion dollar (USD) a year industry. In my article for the special issue of Contemporary Drug Problems, I explore the origins of privatized, prison-based drug treatment. I argue that during the War on Drugs, women’s prisons were utilized as testing grounds for private companies interested in getting into the expanding business of drug rehab.

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Gender and Critical Drug Studies: Reproducing Female Vulnerability in Gendered Drug Discourse

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Helen Keane, associate professor and head of the School of Sociology at Australian National University in Canberra. In it, she explores more about her article on perceptions of female vulnerability, especially in terms of drug use, which appeared in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!

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Helen Keane

Female vulnerability is a persistent theme of medical, public health, and popular discourses on drug use. Women have been understood as biologically, socially, and morally vulnerable to the harms of substance use, and the blurred boundaries of these categories have acted to exacerbate the naturalization of women as at risk from drugs. Men have higher rates of drug use than women, but they are rarely interpreted as suffering from an inherent vulnerability to harm. Instead their use is associated with risk-taking.

Discourses of vulnerability and norms of gendered responsibility for familial and social wellbeing combine to produce women’s drug use as more deviant and disordered than men’s use. In the figure of the pregnant or maternal drug user, the vulnerability of women is converted into a threatening capacity to produce harm. Female biology is contrasted with an unmarked male norm and viewed as more unstable and more prone to damage (in a set of tropes focused on reproduction and reminiscent of Victorian medicine). The vision of unruly drug-using women and the social disorder they produce is one of the “governing mentalities” of drug policy, to use Nancy Campbell’s term [1].

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Gender and Critical Drug Studies: A Woman Formed the First Cartel?

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Elaine Carey, professor of history and Dean of the College of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Purdue University Northwest. In it, she explores more about her article on Delia Patricia Buendía Gutierrez, a contemporary female leader of a Mexican drug trafficking organization, which appeared in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!

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Elaine Carey

To analyze contemporary female leaders of Mexican drug trafficking organizations, I focused on Delia Patricia Buendía Gutierrez, also known as “Ma Baker,” because she represents a historical continuity of the women in the drug trade.  More significantly, however, her organization represents how the history of drugs responds to various contingent and changing factors and events.

Buendía formed a powerful familial-based drug trafficking organization (DTO) that grew the internal cocaine trade in Mexico. She and her daughters Marcela Gabriela, Nadia Isabel, and Norma Patricia, along with extended family and sons-in-laws, built a “narcomenudeo” network in the working class suburb of Ciudad Neza.  There, the Buendía became instrumental to other DTOs by responding to changing demand patterns in the US that shifted from cocaine to heroin. This shift was, in part, due to the over prescription of opioids by medical doctors which triggered a wide spread heroin epidemic.

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Gender and Critical Drug Studies: Feminist Autoethnography, Gender and Drug Use

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes Elizabeth Ettore, Professor of Sociology in the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool. In it, she explores more about her article on the utility of autoethnography in drug research, which appeared in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2018-09-05 at 8.17.33 PMIn my paper “Feminist autoethnography, gender and drug use: ‘Feeling about’ empathy while ‘storying the I,'” I explore autoethnography as a feminist method in the drugs field. My writing Women and Substance Use in the late 1980s/early 1990s felt like pathbreaking, feminist sociology. In 1986, when I was asked to write a book on the experiences of women who used drugs, very little had been published on women’s use of substances other than alcohol.  At that time, the term “substance misuse” rather than “substance use” was used to stigmatize users; no one dared talk about “the body” or “pleasure.” I had been working as a research sociologist at the Addiction Research Unit (ARU) in London, and, sadly, I had not succeeded in drawing attention to women in the addiction research world.

Regarded in retrospect as not only one of the first comprehensive portraits of women as substance users, but also as a critical, feminist sociology of a group once regarded as so “deviant” that even those who researched this group were viewed as contemptible, my book emerged out of the ARU when, in fact, the structure and culture of the unit presented obstacles to my voice, sexuality and views. Not until decades later, when I began to explore the theoretical implications of using autoethnography as a feminist method in the drugs field, did I fully process the experience of gendered marginalization and vulnerability that I lived through during that time. By telling my story during my 40 years’ experience as a feminist researcher in the drugs field,  I hope to help those practicing critical drug scholarship become familiar with autoethnography as a viable way of employing gender analyses and furthering feminist research.

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Gender and Critical Drug Studies: Capsule summary of “The Intersectional Origins of Women’s Substance Abuse: Lessons from Detroit’s WOMAN Center, 1970-1985”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Trysh Travis, associate professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Florida and co-founder of Points. In it, she explains the reasons why she chose to write about WOMAN, a Detroit-based treatment center, and the lessons it taught her. Her post is part of a series featured over the next few weeks that provides further explanations on articles that appear in the special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies.

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Trysh Travis

Long-time readers of Points will be familiar by now with my ongoing (if slightly sporadic) quest for a feminist history of substance abuse treatment. I laid out a research agenda on this topic a few years back, and began to nibble around the edges of the history after that, publishing a few interviews as well as a found example of “gray literature”—a pamphlet produced in the mid-‘70s by a Detroit treatment program called WOMAN in the Cass Corridor in Detroit, Michigan. Then a bunch of other work stuff slid onto my desk, and my feminist detective work/scholarship/Points writing went into stealth mode for a bit.

My interest in this topic never flagged, however, thanks in part to the encouragement of fellow Points writers Michelle McClellan, David Herzberg, and Nancy Campbell, to name just a few. I presented some work on the Cass Corridor program at the Baldy Center Conference on Gender and the Drug War in 2016. That audience was receptive, and I decided the time was right: I dove into the history of WOMAN—an acronym for Woman Organized to Mash Alcohol and Narcotics—and last year rolled it up into an article suitable for inclusion in the special issue of Contemporary Drug Problems that came out of the Baldy Center conference.

(Why all this backstory? Because, grad students, junior colleagues, and all y’all young whippersnappers out there, that’s the stop-start pace at which historical research and writing often happens. Learn it. Live it!)

This article was hard to write because much of the time I felt like the argument driving it was nothing more complex than, “How fucking cool is that??” But, at the same time, and for the same reasons, it often felt like I was watching a train wreck. Another way of saying it, I guess, is that I was engaged in retrospective writing about “the ‘60s,” with all the political and emotional baggage that such a thing entails.

Put simply, WOMAN in the Cass Corridor was a group of activist women who saw clearly the ways that social policies—ghettoization, urban renewal, the criminalization of poverty—pushed women into exploitative relationships and drug use. They believed that raising the class, gender, and racial consciousness of heroin-addicted women would enable them to get off drugs, cease their work in the sex trades, and become community activists. When this happened to enough women, the resulting energies would allow a blighted neighborhood to turn itself around, end the dual predations of crime and urban renewal, and become a genuine community.

Like I said: “How fucking cool is that?”  And, in the first flush of National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) money in the early ‘70s, it was also actually fundable.

The train wreck part you can probably infer from the cool part. Some of WOMAN’s founders had personal experience with alcohol and drug abuse, and a few of them were themselves working class or poor.  But in the aggregate, they had no expertise on either the pharmacology or the psychology of narcotics addiction; their knowledge of the issues facing the population they planned to work with was similarly arms-length. Like many feminist organizations at the time, WOMAN misread the racial politics around it and got bogged down in debates over how to operationalize the anti-hierarchical community they believed essential to ending women’s oppression. As Terry Hluchyj’s thoughtful study of the group (upon which my article relies heavily) argued, WOMAN’s founders’ social justice orientation clashed in significant ways with the mindset of many of its frontline workers, who saw their job as the respectful and professional delivery of health care, not social change.

The program was, in many ways, a radical round peg in the adamantly square hole of a Great Society bureaucracy.  As such, it was unsurprisingly deemed a failure by NIDA after its initial three-year grant expired, and faded away after a few more years.

It was painful to research and write about WOMAN because I kept wanting to yell at the founders—“Don’t fire the Program Director because you think she’s ‘elitist’! She’s keeping accurate records that the feds will want later!” and “Sure, methadone is ‘chemical slavery,’ but you need to preserve legitimacy through the next grant cycle and experimenting with polarity therapy just won’t do it!”  The baseline naivete that lay back of WOMAN’s founding was in many ways maddening.

And yet at the same time, as the national emergency that is the opioid crisis grew unabated while I worked, and the Department of Health and Human Services started to loosen the regulations around prescribing Buprenorphine, and the AMA began to talk about safe injection public bathrooms, and the City of Cambridge pondered installing emergency Narcan stations in Harvard Square, and not one milliliter of ink was spilled on addressing the socio-political context in which opioids-then-heroin-then-fentanyl starts to sound like a good idea—as all that happened and/or didn’t happen, the premises behind WOMAN’s founding started to sound more and more compelling.

Maybe despite, or maybe because of their naiveté, WOMAN’s founders took seriously the material conditions in which women use drugs—the economic, racialized, and gender-structured surroundings that allow drugs to flow to them, make sense to them, and become necessary parts of their lives. They didn’t know exactly how to leverage an awareness of those conditions into a path to recovery, but they grasped that doing so was essential.  Forty years’ worth of “evidence-based” and largely fruitless substance abuse treatment later, I hope policy makers and the treatment community will read the story of WOMAN in the Cass Corridor and take up where its founders left off.

SHAD Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies

Editor’s Note: The newest issue of the Alcohol and Drug History Society’s journal, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, or SHAD, is a special edition, joined with the journal Contemporary Drug Problems. It focuses specifically on gender and critical drug studies. Two of SHAD’s newest co-editors, Nancy Campbell and David Herzberg, provide an introduction to the issue here, and over the next few weeks we’re going to feature some of the issue’s authors giving insights into their work. Enjoy! 

trafficThe 2000 film “Traffic” is harshly critical of American drug policy as ineffective, corrupt, and cruel.  Among the many stories it traces is the ascent of DEA chief Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas) to the position of Drug Czar. Just as Wakefield reaches the apex of his career as an anti-drug warrior, his daughter Caroline descends from recreational drug use into “hard core” heroin addiction.  

Caroline, blonde and so white as to be almost luminescent, begins with casual drug use with other white friends in upscale settings.  As her use becomes more serious, the movie follows her to meaner streets and more diverse companions. When she finally fully succumbs to addiction, she has become a sex worker in an African American neighborhood in the employ of a young, heavily muscled, dark-skinned dealer.

We all immediately recognize these embarrassing racial stereotypes—that’s why they so efficiently signal Caroline’s decline.  And thanks to a wealth of vibrant scholarship that has revealed the racial dynamics of American drug policies, we are likely to be enraged by the calculated conflation of addiction, degradation, and blackness in a supposedly rebellious film.  Shouldn’t Steven Soderbergh (the director) know better? But racialized tropes are so deeply built into drug-war culture that their absence would be surprising even in a critical vehicle like “Traffic.”

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Exciting Updates: SHAD and the University of Chicago Press, the 2019 ADHS Conference, and more!

The Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS) has a lot of exciting news to reveal these days.

First of all, the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (or SHAD), the official journal of ADHS, has three new co-editors. We’re so pleased to welcome this esteemed and worthy trio!

Second, the co-editors of SHAD just signed a five-year agreement with the University of Chicago Press, beginning with the 2019 volume of the journal. ADHS President Dr. Timothy Hickman celebrated the news in an email, stating that “this is a fantastic deal for the society.  Of greatest interest to those of you who have published in the journal or are considering it, our reach will grow dramatically.  We will be bundled in with other U. of Chicago journals and will be part of their institutional subscription package.  That means we will become available in hundreds of libraries and research institutes all over the world where we had no presence before.

“It also means that the entire run of the journal will be easily available electronically and that the submission and review process will be brought up to date.  Submission will be centralized, and reviews assigned via an on-line submission system.  The new system will push the journal to an entirely new level, which I hope will encourage even more of you to submit.  The society will also benefit from a very lucrative financial arrangement with the press.

“We will also be able to bring our membership and subscription practices up to date.  The U. of Chicago Press will manage subscriptions, so please watch out for a renewal e-mail from them in the future.”

But that’s not all! Things just seem to be getting more exciting for ADHS: our 2019 conference will take us to Shanghai!

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