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]