Mothers' Day Behind Bars

For many of us, Mothers' Day is spent celebrating the moms in our lives: our own mothers, the mothers of our children, our grandmothers. But for thousands of Oklahoma women i prison, Mothers' Day is a much more solemn affair, as they are separated from their families. For children of mothers behind bars, the occasion can be particularly difficult.

In Oklahoma, the problem is substantially larger than in other parts of the nation. After all, Oklahoma consistently has the highest incarceration rate for women in the United States--typically more than twice the national average. According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, in 2012, the state incarcerated 127 women per 100,000 female population. Nationally, the average was 63. It is a trend that has remained constant for more than a decade--since 1994.

The overwhelming majority of these women--more than 80 percent--are in jail or prison for non-violent offenses. Many have been sentenced according to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-violent drug offenses. 

According to research by Dr. Susan Sharp with the University of Oklahoma film project "Women Behind Bars," over half of the women incarcerated in Oklahoma are mothers, and a large number of those are the heads of single parent households.

In 2010, Dr. Sharp collaborated with Emily Pain and the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth for the Oklahoma Study of Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children. This study revealed that more than 4,600 children under the age of 18 have incarcerated mothers. 

With mothers typically the primary caregivers even in dual-parent homes, what is the impact on Oklahoma children when they have a parent behind bars? Where are these children living when their mothers are in jail or prison.

 In just under a third of the cases (31 percent) the child lives with his or her other parent while the mother is incarcerated. But for more than two-thirds of Oklahoma children with a mother in jail or prison, "home" is not with a parent at all while mom is locked up:

  • 28.3 percent live with their maternal grandmother
  • 8 percent live with an aunt or uncle who is their mother's sibling
  • 8 percent live with other maternal relatives
  • 5.9 percent live with the mother of their mother's partner
  • 5.9 percent live in foster care

We need to be concerned with the incarceration of women--and mothers in particular--in Oklahoma and across the nation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the number of children under 18 with a mother in prison grew 131 percent between 1991 and 2007. Statistics show that, without intervention, up to 70 percent of children with an incarcerated parent will grow up to become inmates themselves at some time in their lives. When a mother is incarcerated, a child is much more likely--often twice as likely--to suffer bad grades, run away from home, have conflict with a guardian, get expelled or drop out of school, get arrested, have a substance abuse problem, or become depressed or suicidal. That's not only a high price for a child to pay, but a high price for society as well. 

An overwhelming percentage of women behind bars have suffered trauma at some point in their lives prior to being arrested. They are often victims of domestic violence and/or rape or sexual assault. They are more likely to have a current mental illness or history of mental illness, and many have turned to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with trauma or undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. 

Drug diversion programs such as drug court rather than prison can offer some solutions. Treatment of addictions and mental health issues can alleviate the problems at the root of any criminal activity. With the passage of the Justice Safety Valve Act, Oklahoma judges now have the discretion to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences when the imposition of such a sentence would not serve the interests of justice. These things will help.  Having a female incarceration rate twice the national average is doing nothing to make the state safer. Instead, it may only fuel a cycle or recidivism and incarceration among generations.

Image Credit: modified from Global Panorama