The women in the old two-story house fell silent as a mother in the group recalled the toughest chapters of a life measured in prison terms and heartache.
Susan Hylton counts more than two dozen convictions on her record, most of them drug related. Her first run-ins with police began when she was 13.
A runaway, she preferred life and hard drugs on the streets, she said, to sexual abuse she faced at home in El Paso. But her escape route led to more trauma: nearly a year in a sex trafficking ring as a minor.
Hylton, 40, has struggled to recover ever since, although the months following her release from a New Mexico prison last fall have brought a chance at breaking the cycle of addiction, arrests and child custody hearings.
She has regular counseling sessions and received a recent promotion that has made her the manager at a Subway sandwich shop in Albuquerque. Two weeks ago, she moved to her own apartment after months of housing support from a local charity.
For decades, she has been among the growing ranks of U.S. women, most of them mothers and victims of domestic or childhood abuse, who have cycled through the criminal justice system. Now, she is among the hundreds of thousands on parole trying to rebuild their lives after incarceration.
“I’m not where I want to be yet, but thank God I am where I’m at,” Hylton said.
Twenty of them, all with their own stories of incarceration, gathered for a weekly meeting in the back room of a home on the edge of Downtown Albuquerque that serves as office space for the nonprofit Crossroads for Women.
Women’s prison numbers have increased more than sevenfold over the last three decades, while incarceration numbers among men, who still comprise the vast majority of the nation’s inmates, have grown at half that rate.
The most recent federal figures show that 113,000 women were held in the nation’s federal and state prisons in 2014. The following year brought a slight dip for both men and women due in large part to Obama-era sentencing policies that aimed to shorten prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes and reduce the nation’s prison population.
Those numbers may again climb in light of the announcement earlier this year by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that federal prosecutors should seek the toughest sentences possible in such cases.
In New Mexico, the rise in the women’s prison population is so profound that a state sentencing commission predicts that their numbers within the next fiscal year will reach 810 – a figure that exceeds the number of prison beds for women.
The commission attributes the increase in part to the fact that more women in the state are convicted of drug trafficking – with its longer sentences – as opposed to simple drug possession.
At Crossroads, recently retired executive director KC Quirk often talked about how women can fall into a familiar pattern that begins with a first arrest on a nonviolent misdemeanor charge, like shoplifting or drug possession. Quirk calls them “survival crimes.”
They can escalate to drug trafficking or property offenses, after the women spend days or weeks in jail awaiting trial or trying to make bail as their lives on the outside unravel.
“When you talk to the women here, most can point back to things in their life that were traumatic, which doesn’t get healed without support,” Quirk said. “Most get caught in the system for small-time stuff, but if it lands you in the system once, that’s the beginning of a very difficult cycle to get out of.”
Crossroads manages re-entry housing in Albuquerque and nearby Los Lunas for more than 50 recently incarcerated women. Staffers help them sign up for a high school equivalency degree or community college courses and help them meet their parole requirements.
‘Get off paper’
One missed appointment with a parole officer, a failed drug test or the battery running out on an ankle monitoring bracelet can be enough to justify authorities’ decision to send them back to prison to finish their parole term in lockup, according to the women.
Everyone in the group has the goal to “get off paper,” said member Yvonne Luna. That’s the women’s phrase for completing parole and finally living free of state supervision on the outside.
“That is the mission here,” said Luna, who lives at one of the homes managed by Crossroads.
The mother of a teenager, she has juggled GED classes with court dates this year, all with hopes of regaining visitation rights to see her son.
Others in the room recalled their paths to their first arrest. One woman asked how many of them picked up their first charge after a man in their lives pressured them to commit a crime.
During a previous week, women went around the room and counted their jail bookings and prison terms. Among them, they had 200, a figure the women attribute more to lives racked by abuse, addiction and mental illness than any draw to a criminal lifestyle.
Hylton lived on the streets before those operating the El Paso sex trafficking ring lured her with promises of money. After authorities raided the business, they placed Hylton and other victims in a juvenile detention center. She learned she was pregnant during that stint at age 17.
The baby was placed in a foster home. Three additional children would be adopted or put in foster care, owing to Hylton’s struggles with addiction.
“Her story is pretty darn real and gritty, and an example of the risks of young women who find themselves in that type of life and without resources,” said Thomas Stanton, a former child welfare attorney in El Paso who represented Hylton when she was a teen.
Now general counsel for the Texas Methodist Foundation, Stanton verified details of Hylton’s youth. He said it was clear when he met her that she suffered from deep self-esteem issues and confusion as a result of abuse.
Now she has been clean for two years. Her last arrest came in 2015 for trafficking meth when she was out of federal prison, where she served time on a marijuana trafficking charge.
Hylton insists she won’t slip back into using drugs or selling them and plans to regain custody of her three youngest children – 10-year-old twins and a 9-year-old – who are living with her 80-year-old mother in Las Cruces.
She faces tough odds: More than half of inmates released from state prisons are arrested again within five years.
Often, she has been confronted by her former lifestyle, whether it’s running into a friend from the past or seeing a stranger get high during her commute to work.
On the same day as one of the Tuesday group meetings that she attended before graduating from her re-entry program, a man on her crosstown bus offered her “shards” – a type of crystal meth. She told her friends about it at Crossroads that night.
“You know, I’m not that lost person anymore. There is no problem I can’t get through today,” she said. “But it took me almost 30 years to get here, and that’s pretty damn sad.”
This report is one of a series of stories from the CJ Project, an initiative to broaden the news coverage of criminal justice issues affecting New Mexico’s diverse communities.