Murray, a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist whose work is inspired by personal experience, looks to the past to improve the future for women in recovery. “When I was in recovery programs, I was told what to do but was never asked what I needed.”
When Tawanda Murray was seeking addiction treatment, she went through several programs to identify the best option for her. “I had to find my own resources and integrate what I found at different programs, and I thought, ‘There has to be an easier way to do this,’” she said.
Her experiences led her to create I Am Recovery, which is registered as a recovery program with the Tennessee Secretary of State. Today, Ms. Murray works with women in recovery in a variety of settings, including prison, drug court and re-entry programs for women released from prison. For several years, she has been facilitating recovery meetings in the women’s prison in Nashville. As someone who has been through the criminal justice system herself, Ms. Murray understands the challenges the women face.
“They need stable housing. They face court fines and fees. Some have mental health issues. Most don’t have driver’s licenses, so they have no easy way to get from one place to another. Many don’t have insurance,” she said.
The criminal justice system was not originally designed to help people with addiction. An estimated 65% of the United States prison population meets the criteria for an active substance use disorder. Ms. Murray’s clients point to issues such as withdrawal from substances and the lack of guidance to transition into a stable environment when released as key difficulties for individuals struggling with substance use. Individuals are at high risk of relapse and overdose after their release from prison; in fact, one study in Washington State found that the risk of death among recently incarcerated individuals was over 12 times the general population rate.
Ms. Murray also knows that women with addiction face particular struggles. “The concept of being a woman,” she says, can interfere with recovery, as women are expected to be caregivers and carry the responsibilities of motherhood. They often are impacted by domestic violence, financial instability and low self-esteem. Pregnant women and mothers with substance use disorders are often heavily stigmatized, deterring them from seeking treatment out of fear their children will be taken away. The female prison population has grown exponentially over the past few decades. In 2019, 26% of women in state prisons were incarcerated for drug-related offenses, as opposed to 13% of men in prison. While Ms. Murray works with a diverse array of women, women of color, particularly Black and Latina women, were more likely to be imprisoned than white women. Ms. Murray says that social support is an essential component of treatment: women need child care, transportation and better support for their families.
Her approach is person-centered. “When I was in recovery programs, I was told what to do but was never asked what I needed,” she said. “Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous help some people, and others find help with faith-based programs. You can’t have just one program for everyone.”
The I Am Recovery curriculum is seven weeks, but some participants find it helpful to use the program workbook at their own pace. Topics include breaking free, commitment, sense of self, relapse prevention and coping with triggers. It serves all areas of recovery, including alcohol, drugs, mental health, trauma, parenting and relationships.
Recovery programs also have to help individuals navigate numerous structural barriers that can jeopardize their recovery. Individuals who were incarcerated often face many requirements upon release, which create an unworkable system of overlapping and competing demands. They may encounter difficulty finding employment, due to discrimination against people with criminal records and substance use disorders, yet lack of employment can be a probation/parole violation in itself, and can also lead to failure to pay fines/fees. Securing stable housing is also a challenge, due to a criminal record or history of substance use, as well as a dearth of quality recovery housing and affordable housing. Housing instability makes it hard to get the ID card required to drive or to sign up for insurance needed to pay for mental health or addiction treatment. Because they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system (Black people constituted 18% of state residents in Tennessee, but 42% of people in prison in 2017), Black people are more likely to face these barriers and be stigmatized.
The stress and vulnerability of trying to juggle these compounding requirements, and many beyond these, can easily contribute to relapse. The system is designed in a way that leads to failure, and then blames the individual if they relapse or return to jail.
Ms. Murray’s goal is to create a one-stop-shop center for recovery education. “The center will be a place where people do group meetings, use the I Am Recovery curriculum, work on job skills, interpersonal skills and parenting,” she said. “We’ll provide them with transportation to and from the center and have family nights. It will be a place where people can learn the path to be productive citizens.”
To learn more about Ms. Murray and her work, visit Tawanda Murray | LinkedIn.