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Column: Don’t Imprison Heroin Mothers and Babies

I’m told the first months of my life were torture. I screamed constantly, spat out milk, and vomited all the time. I was going through withdrawal.

I was a heroin baby. My mother began using drugs as a teen. By the time I was born, she’d done several stints in prison. She even gave birth to me in prison, where I lived for the first year of my life. Eventually, though, my incarcerated mother lost custody of me. I wound up in foster care, later adoption.

Most people see this as a success story — government gone right. But I know differently. My biological mother, my foster parents, and my adoptive parents didn’t get the support they needed to tend to my medical and mental health needs. Though I survived developmental delays, I slipped into multiple drug addictions in my teens as my way to cope with the losses, trauma and sorrow. Drugs were all I knew to self-medicate.

I’ve been clean 20 years. But I now know that addiction is a physical and mental disease, and not a criminal justice problem. That’s why I oppose laws like the one in Tennessee that criminalizes pregnant women who use drugs. Supporters says measures like this protect unborn children. Some even say it’ll deter drug abuse and addiction.

But really, the law sentences two generations at a time and continues a cycle of trauma. The incarceration rate for women has risen 800 percent in the last 20 years, and the rate of incarceration for drug crimes increased tenfold between 1980 and 2010. The number of children under 18 with a mother in prison has more than doubled since 1991. Overall, 2.3 million underage children have a parent in prison. That’s larger than the state of Delaware. It’s larger than the population of San Francisco, or of Philadelphia.

The new law in Tennessee simply feeds a pipeline of foster care, and does nothing to treat the core problem of addiction. Further, it traumatizes mothers and their newborns, who need stability, not prison time. This law will keep pregnant women who are using drugs away from prenatal care. A better policy would provide drug treatment, medical and mental health services, and job skills training.

Now that I’ve been clean for two decades, I work across the country with women in rehab centers and with mothers in prisons, most with histories of drug addiction. One thing is for sure: Babies born drug exposed are not drug-seeking addicts, and for the mothers, addiction isn’t a crime. It’s a public health and mental health concern, treatable through rehab, mental health services and drug treatment.

Deborah Jiang-Stein is founder of The unPrison Project.