Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Locking up mothers in Oklahoma


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Locking up mothers in Oklahoma

  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel won’t seek a third term. These movements are a big reason

  • NYC prosecutors are stoking fear about the mass bailout, but their arguments don’t add up

  • San Francisco’s DA will not seek re-election

  • Plans to create Philadelphia’s first safe consumption site, with support from former Pennsylvania governor

  • Nooses, nonexistent dental care, and solitary confinement in an immigration jail

  • No such thing as opioid overdoses through skin contact, despite law enforcement fears

In the Spotlight

Locking up mothers in Oklahoma

In a country that incarcerates people with abandon, Oklahoma has the distinction of being No. 1. The state recently passed Louisiana as the state with the highest rate of incarceration, thanks to a raft of reforms in Louisiana and a continuing increase in the number of people sent to jail and prison in Oklahoma. [Prison Policy Initiative] Oklahoma has also, for decades, sent more women to jail and prison, per capita, than any other state in the country. Black and Native women bear the brunt of this, overrepresented among incarcerated women by a factor of two and nearly three, respectively, according to a 2017 analysis by Reveal.

Mass incarceration means mass family separation and the mass incarceration of women has meant the mass separation of mothers from their children. A new report from Human Rights Watch looks at Oklahoma’s criminal legal system through the lens of its effects on mothers, most of them the sole or primary caregivers for their children. While there are no exact numbers of how many incarcerated people are parents, across the country 60 percent of women in prisons and 80 percent of women in jail are mothers with minor children. One in 14 American children has had an incarcerated parent and among Black children, it is 1 in 9. And there is a direct line from parental incarceration to the foster care system—8 percent of children in foster care were placed in state custody because a parent was incarcerated. In Oklahoma, according to a 2014 study, nearly 10 percent of the children of incarcerated mothers were living in foster homes or agencies. Perhaps most wrenchingly, nearly 12 percent of the mothers did not know where their children were. [Human Rights Watch]

The policies that lead to this large-scale separation of mothers and children include familiar culprits: indiscriminate arrest and charging practices, money bail, proceedings that are drawn out and filled with delays, and harsh drug sentences. Among the recommendations in the Human Rights Watch report is that legislators adopt laws requiring judges to consider a person’s “primary caretaker status” when making bail determinations, deciding whether to impose a sentence, and in sentencing. The majority of women in prison in Oklahoma, and the majority of mothers separated from their children, are serving sentences for nonviolent offenses—more than half for drug offenses and nearly 20 percent for violations of probation or parole. The 2017 Reveal investigation found that the most common reason women ended up in prison was a conviction for drug possession and that sentences for drug possession had gone up 29 percent from a decade ago. (The one exception was Tulsa County.) A state task force that looked at the causes of Oklahoma’s high rate of incarceration issued policy recommendations that included cutting sentences for some drug crimes in half. [Ziva Branstetter, Allison Herrera, Harriet Rowan, and Eric Sagara / Reveal]

Once separated from their children, mothers struggle to regain custody and sometimes must fight efforts to terminate their parental rights. Yet the conditions under which the state incarcerates people also place enormous obstacles in the way of maintaining family ties. In Oklahoma, jail visits happen with a glass partition between visitors and the person in jail, which means that mothers cannot hold their children, hug them, or even hold their hands. Some jails have done away with visits altogether. Phone calls are expensive, often prohibitively so. For those mothers whose custody of their children is the subject of court proceedings, many may not know the dates of court hearings on their parental rights, have little to no meaningful communication with the caseworkers, and are given no opportunity to attend hearings even when their parental rights are at stake. And those mothers who plead guilty to leave jail as quickly as possible then face the mountain of debt produced by “jail stay fees” and other fines and fees. They also have limited employment opportunities and struggle to afford the costs of complying with child welfare mandates. [Human Rights Watch]

In Mean Lives, Mean Laws, Susan Sharp, an expert on women’s incarceration, wrote that Oklahoma women became “collateral damage in the War on Drugs.” A 2015 article in The Nation looked at how “conditions in Oklahoma often push women down the path toward prison”: the state ranked among the bottom 16 for women’s mental health and among the bottom 10 for women’s economic security and access to health insurance and higher education. The result is a “vicious cycle in which the women who have the least access to social and economic independence, health insurance and mental health treatment are the most at risk for imprisonment.” [Victoria Law / The Nation] Sentencing in drug cases is also marked by unevenness: The state’s poor, rural counties impose the longest sentences, on average, and have the highest rates of incarceration of women.

Sharp told Reveal that ideas about “proper womanhood” contribute to harsh sentencing: “I think the general population of the state feels that a woman—particularly a woman who has children who uses drugs—violates all the norms in a way that they find unacceptable,” she said, “and they would rather see those children grow up in foster care than to be with a mother who had a drug problem.” [Ziva Branstetter, Allison Herrera, Harriet Rowan, and Eric Sagara / Reveal]

Stories From The Appeal

A demonstrator protesting in 2015 over the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder in the 2014 death of 17-year-old McDonald. [Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images]

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Won’t Seek a Third Term. These Movements Are a Big Reason. Protesters blasting everything from punitive prosecutors to police brutality should be remembered for their role in upsetting the Windy City’s political status quo, Kelly Hayes writes. [Kelly Hayes]

NYC Prosecutors Are Stoking Fear About the Mass Bailout, But Their Arguments Don’t Add Up. District attorneys’ comments belie the true purpose of bail in New York and ignore the safety risks of jail itself, Fordham University law professor John Pfaff writes. [John Pfaff]

Stories From Around the Country

San Francisco’s DA will not seek re-election: George Gascón has announced that he will not seek a third term as San Francisco district attorney next year. He was appointed DA in 2011, to fill the vacancy created when now-Senator Kamala Harris left the position to serve as California state attorney general. Though a former police chief, Gascón’s policy positions made him the target of frequent criticism from law enforcement groups, including this year when he was the only California law enforcement official to support legislation that would have limited police use of deadly force. The chief attorney in the public defender’s office had previously described him as “the most progressive DA we’ve ever had.” Gascón was also, however, widely criticized for his failure to prosecute police officer killings. Despite running unopposed in 2015, he was facing three opponents in the DA’s race next year. [Matier & Ross / San Francisco Chronicle]

Plans to create Philadelphia’s first safe consumption site, with support from former Pennsylvania governor: A new nonprofit, Safehouse, has formed with the aim of bringing a public health approach to Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, including through creation of an overdose prevention site. Philadelphia has the highest rate of overdose deaths of any major city in the country and city officials had announced in January that they would permit the opening of a safe consumption site. There was immediate pushback, including a statement from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that city officials could expect legal action from the federal government if a site were allowed to open. One of Safehouse’s board members is Ed Rendell, a former mayor and governor, who in 1992 authorized a needle exchange program and whose close friend’s son died of a heroin overdose in 2016. Safehouse is in the process of raising funds for the project, which would also allow people to start medication-assisted treatment and have access to recovery specialists, social workers, and case managers. [Aubrey Whelan / Philadelphia Inquirer]

Nooses, nonexistent dental care, and solitary confinement in an immigration jail: On an unannounced inspection of a private immigration jail in California in May, the Department of Homeland Security’s office of the inspector general discovered “cells with nooses dangling from air vents, detainees losing teeth from lack of dental care and one disabled inmate left alone in a wheelchair for nine days,” the Washington Post reports. Inspectors saw nooses in 15 of the 20 cells they visited. They found that jail staff “prematurely and inappropriately” locked detainees in segregation cells without proper review.  People had little access to medical care and next to no access to dental care. One of the two dentists on staff told inspectors that filings—which had not been carried out in four years—were unnecessary if people flossed, something he suggested they do with string from their socks. The facility in Adelanto is run by the GEO Group, which owns and operates 71 federal prisons and detention centers. [Nick Miroff / Washington Post]

No such thing as opioid overdoses through skin contact, despite law enforcement fears:  When a parole officer became ill and needed to be hospitalized in Philadelphia on Monday, other parole office staff members believed it was the result of exposure to the synthetic opioid fentanyl. However, an internal investigation said the fears were unfounded. Last month, a similar fear of exposure at Pennsylvania prisons led to a ban on book donations. Philadelphia’s Billy Penn points to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent reporting that medical experts have said it is implausible that fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin. A report from the American College of Medical Toxicology says “it is very unlikely that small, unintentional skin exposures to tablets or powder would cause significant opioid toxicity,” and that disposable rubber gloves would provide sufficient protection. [Max Marin / Billy Penn]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.