Oklahoma’s Crisis: Too Many Women

Oklahoma’s Crisis: Too Many Women

Dianne Frazee-Walker

Oklahoma has a women’s problem, but not the kind of problem one may contemplate. The problem is more women in Oklahoma are incarcerated than any other state in the country. In fact, the number of women incarcerated in Oklahoma is almost double the national average. For a state that has an overflowing correctional system, 2,700 women are quite an exorbitant figure, especially when 67% of these Oklahoma women are locked-up for nonviolent crimes. Only about 16% of these women committed violent crimes.

Regardless of the offenses for which Oklahoma women are spending time in prison, these dire statistics are costing the state $26,000,000 a year.

Oklahoma also has a children problem. Three percent of Oklahoma children have at least one parent incarcerated. The problem with that is children with at least one parent in prison are five times more likely to be arrested as a juvenile and end up in prison as an adult.

Even though most of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women are serving excessive sentences for non-violent crimes, they are branded into one group of degenerates by society. Local community members are ignorant about the circumstances that led up to these women ending up in prison and believe they should be locked away from the rest of civilization.

Regarded as a different species. Isolate them. They did the crime, so we don’t care about them. The attitude of local Oklahomans concerning the reason for the high rate of female incarceration is: “Oklahoma has mean women.”

The goal is to get people to view them as real people with feelings. They want to see their families.

Many of the women in prison labeled as “mean women” come from abusive backgrounds. About 91% of the women are victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Some have been convicted of drug-related crimes. Compounded with these unfortunate situations, high school dropout rates are high.

Methamphetamine charges are common.

Women need treatment more than they need to be locked up. Women have special needs.

More resources need to be used for prevention and intervention prior to probation. Women need to become enfranchised before leaving prison, not just walk out. They need to tell their story, get an education, become productive citizens, and vote. This population needs support to be sobriety-centered and stay clean. They need to return to their families and society with new anger and conflict skills, skills that allow them to stay out of prison.

Women in Recovery is a program that gives women a second chance to change their lives. The program focuses on recovery as opposed to locking women up for periods of time that do not match their crimes.

The program has earned its endorsement from judges, district attorneys, and public defenders. Tulsa District County Court Judge Kurt Glassco is to be commended for getting judicial officials on board with Women in Recovery. His acclamation for the program happened when he practiced as a private lawyer. He had the opportunity to see firsthand what the program did for his clients. Since Glassco became a judge in October of 2009, he has supported Women in Recovery by referring several women with common drug-related charges such as methamphetamine, counterfeit checks, and forged prescriptions. Judges Glassco’s philosophy is he would rather give eligible women a chance at recovery than spend time behind bars.

There is an alternative to sending women to prison when it is questionable if they will receive adequate drug treatment. The program’s aim is to halt the progression of addiction by treating nonviolent women before they are sentenced to prison. During the beginning of the women’s time in the program, they are monitored with ankle bracelets. They stay in halfway houses, and their progress is updated regularly by the judicial system. Women participating in the program receive a variety of services, including substance abuse treatment, parenting skills training, life skills, job support, and health and dental care. Upon completing the program successfully, the women will be relieved of prison time.

Mimi Tarrasch, director of Women in Recovery, expresses that the main objective of the program is to prevent women released from prison from reentering the same environment that got them in trouble in the first place. “We want to separate them from their past.”

Women in Recovery has what it takes to be a successful program. They are financially supported by The George Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser, a Tulsa native, is known to be ranked the 29th wealthiest person in the U.S. As of January 2011, the foundation has granted Women in Recovery more than $3.2 million since the inception of the program in 2009. The main financial focus of the foundation is to provide women with early intervention and reverse the cycle of poverty.  Most of the activities of the program surround the well-being of young children.

Girl Scouts Behind Bars is another Oklahoma program that gives incarcerated parents a second chance to put their children first. Children of incarcerated parents often think, if mom or dad did something wrong, then I can, too. The goal is to prevent children of incarcerated parents from following in their parent’s footsteps. Most of these children usually end up behind bars as well because it is the only life they know. It is always the same story. There is a lot of fear involved. The children feel like their parents died when they went to prison. Something significant in their lives is missing, and there is a deep sense of loss. They are angry and rebellious and feel abandoned by their parents. Many of these children suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The program helps the children understand they can change their history and be a family again by laying the groundwork for them. Girl Scouts Behind Bars facilitates children being able to visit their parents monthly, two hours at a time, which is enough to make a new connection. The Girl Scouts Behind Bars program is often the only resource to which low-income parents behind bars can turn to help pay for the trip to prisons located in remote areas.

While some are skeptical about the benefits of exposing children to prison life, children who were forced to grow up without their parents say that encouraging such visits is critical. “But we have to resist the urge to belittle the child-parent relationship in families of individuals who’ve been convicted of a crime,” wrote The Chicago Reporter Editor Alden K. Loury, who didn’t meet his father until he was 20. “Incarcerated parents are still parents, and the fractured relationships resulting from their actions will have a profound effect on their children well into adulthood.”

Incarcerated women are a growing problem across America. Opening the eyes of the legislature by addressing the budget problem is the first step toward getting this disastrous social problem under control. Mass incarceration of non-violent women without recovery treatment is a serious crisis that needs to be addressed nationally.