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A Daily Fight for Control

Two sisters reach for recovery from addiction in jail.

Members of the Heroin Addiction Recovery Program at the Chesterfield County Jail in Virginia pray for a participant as she was preparing to be released in November of 2017.

When Julia Rendleman started taking pictures at the Chesterfield County Jail outside of Richmond, Virginia, last year, she knew she wanted to depict the opioid crisis in a different way from stories she had seen before. “I think we have seen the images of needles searching for veins and people in very sad circumstances, living on the streets or prostituting. Some call this ‘needle porn.’ I don’t have any pictures to add to that sort of reporting,” she said. Instead she photographed two sisters in a jail recovery program that helps inmates and former inmates identify alternatives to drug use. Rather than depicting the experience of people suffering from addiction in a uniform way, Rendleman highlights the sisters’ individual stories.

Tera Crowder, 34, shows her bracelets, each marking another month of clean time. She has sought recovery from addiction before, but she thinks something is different about the peer-to-peer HARP program. "We're already beat down enough. That's what's different about this program. [It] teaches you the tools to staying clean," she said.

Over four months, Rendleman photographed Tera Crowder, 34, and her sister, Stephanie Crowder, 25, as they navigated the Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP) in the jail. Tera started using drugs at age 19 to cope with a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with a man. She started using heroin at 22, after her father suffered severe brain and head trauma in a motorcycle accident. Stephanie started taking pills as a teenager and moved on to heroin at age 20. Both have cycled in and out of jail. Tera has been arrested for grand larceny, possession of a controlled substance and identity theft; Stephanie for grand larceny, possession of a controlled substance and forgery, among other charges.

Stephanie Crowder, 25, leans on her roommate Courtnay Couch during a HARP meeting.

In 2016, after the county’s 10th heroin overdose death of the year, Sheriff Karl Leonard created HARP. “I told myself that we were defining insanity at its best—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” Leonard said. “So I decided that we were no longer going to release sober addicts but instead sober recovered addicts, which is the entire impetus for our program.” As part of HARP, the women participate in peer-to-peer counseling, receive mental health services, are provided with reentry assistance and participate in work release programs. Of 493 people who have participated in the program as of June, 320, or 65 percent, have not re-offended.

Tera, left, eats lunch with other HARP participants during a break between group sessions.

The Crowder sisters faced different challenges in the recovery program. Tera's biggest struggle was reconciling her time in jail with her role as a mother. Her middle son, James, was born dependent on heroin and barely survived his first few months of life. “The hardest thing I had to go through during my incarceration was having two Riverside guards with me in the delivery room holding my son while I was cuffed to a bed, then having to hand him over to the nurses two days later so I could go back to jail,” Tera said. HARP gave her the tools to deal with that pain and a place to try to live free of drugs, she said.

Women participate in a Narcotics Anonymous-style meeting in HARP.

Stephanie, who has a 5-year-old son living with his paternal grandparents, struggled to adhere to the program rules. She was assigned “pull-ups,” or disciplinary tasks, that were meant to teach structure and responsibility. She frequently pushed back against those tasks, and she was eventually removed from the program.

Michelle Blaney, left, holds her cousin Stephanie's hand while she reads an "impact letter," written to herself from the perspective of her 5-year-old son. "I'm scared for you, Stephanie. There are fuckers out there who are going to give [heroin] to you for free," said Blaney while Stephanie talked about her impending release.

Rendleman, who previously worked at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Houma Courier in Louisiana, focused on showing the bonds formed among the women in jail. In one image, Tera reads an “impact letter” she wrote to herself from the perspective of her sons. “It took her weeks to write it and after she read it, tears rolling off her cheeks, she said she felt cleansed,” Rendleman said.

After weeks of worry, Tera reads aloud her "impact letter," written from the perspective of her oldest son to herself.

"Your water broke after shooting an eight ball of dope and you were taken to St. Francis. When Nanny got there and you finally pushed James out, you seen that he looked blue and noticed he wasn't moving." In her "impact letter", Tera recounts the birth of her third son, James, now 7.

Now, months later, Tera is still incarcerated. Stephanie’s release date from the county jail was in January, but she felt apprehensive about the prospect of going home. In the past, she had spent time living on the streets. As she told Rendleman, "I never came here [home], because I didn't want to face reality and disappoint my mom anymore than I already have." Stephanie has since gone back to jail.

Tera looks through pictures as her cousin and cellmate, Michelle Blaney, rounds the corner.

Despite the ups and downs, Rendleman says the sisters’ story contains an optimistic message about the possibility of recovery. As Tera notes, "HARP has given me a great support system and has given me the coping skills I need to get by. The staff and the sheriff treated us like men and women and gave us a slice of hope that we have never known through our addiction.”

Deborah leaves her home with her youngest grandson to pick up her daughter Stephanie as she is being released from jail in January of 2018.

Deborah hugs her daughter Stephanie upon her release from jail.

Stephanie talks with her mother at home about an hour after being released from jail.

Deborah, right, questions her daughter, Stephanie, about who she has been talking with on the phone shortly after being released from jail.

Julia Rendleman’s work on the opioid epidemic, including her photos from Chesterfield County, is supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.