Research News

‘Orange is the New Black’ author joins Center for Addiction Research to discuss National Women Touched by Addiction Day

July 23 is National Women Touched by Addiction Day, an awareness day created by Nashville nonprofit Mending Hearts to recognize women who have faced addiction firsthand or have felt its effects through others, and to call for the destigmatization of addiction.

In recognition of this day, the Vanderbilt School of Medicine Basic Sciences’ Center for Addiction Research hosted a conversation about the intersection of incarceration, societal reentry and addiction, and their impact on women. The discussion featured:

  • Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,
  • Tarra Simmons, Democratic member of the Washington State House of Representatives and executive director of the Civil Survival Project,
  • Katrina Frierson, president and CEO of Mending Hearts.

Led by Erin Calipari, assistant professor of pharmacology, and Danny Winder, director of VCAR, the conversation ranged from the negative impacts of drug criminalization to stigma, punitive policies to needed services, and basic biology to the power of stories to change the societal narrative about addiction and formerly incarcerated individuals.

The intersection of incarceration and addiction for women

“When we look at women and girls specifically who have criminal system contact and possibly incarceration,” Kerman said, “we see overwhelmingly that the vast majority of them have substance abuse disorder or mental health challenges, and often both. And the vast majority of them are incarcerated for a drug offense or for a property crime, which is often driven by addiction. So, when we look at the incarceration of women, which has been the fasting growing group of people in the prison system over decades in this country, what overwhelmingly drives the incarceration of women is issues related to addiction and substance abuse disorder, and we also see staggering rates of trauma. So, trauma intersects with substance use disorder, and that rolls right into incarceration. The irony is that incarceration in this country is profoundly punitive. What unequivocally happens to women who have been incarcerated for whatever reason—but including reasons directly tethered into trauma—is that we continue that trauma in ways that are profound and very difficult to recover from.”

The basic biology of punishment

“What we know about basic biology,” Calipari said, “is that punishers like incarceration or even punishing children. They do not change behavior; they suppress it. As soon as you remove the punisher and let people out into the world, that behavior comes back because you did not change the motivation, the root cause, or the trauma. This goes down to rodents and lower-order organisms. This is a fundamental thing that we know about behavior. It’s amazing as addiction researchers to watch how policies do not address the things we know are behavioral drivers.”

Stigma and punitive policies

“The stigma of the criminal record, related to a heath condition, is really what I am trying to change,” Rep. Simmons said. She explained how connecting with people on a human level is important for redefining the narrative about being formerly incarcerated and having a history with addiction. Simmons added, “Sharing stories—sharing the stories of our children and how all these policies of criminalization have impacted our children” is important. “I think one thing people are astonished by is the fact that I am an attorney. I had to fight to the state supreme court to become an attorney and won in a unanimous same-day decision after the bar association denied me. I’m a state representative, but I can’t go on a field trip with my kids because of punitive policies that keep us out.”

The need for support for women in recovery and reentry

Frierson spoke about the importance of wraparound services and peer support for women in the reentry and recovery community. “With Mending Hearts my goal is not only that we assess the woman while she is incarcerated. Let’s meet her at the door. Let’s welcome her with open arms. Let’s bring her into service with the intention to know her discharge before she discharges,” she said.

Solving the problem

“To solve this problem,” Calipari said, “we need research to understand it. You need policies to change so that you can empower women. You need support for women in recovery, and a conversation that is relatable to people to understand why it is so important.”

“It’s the most important work,” Kerman said. “To get to a less punitive and more loving and a more restorative community is well worth the effort.”


One excellent starting place on campus is Vanderbilt Recovery Support. The website provides lines to a variety of web resources to facilitate treatment-seeking individuals.

View the entire conversation on YouTube.