Poverty, unwed and teen mothers, sexual and physical abuse, drug use and several other social factors combine to help produce the highest per capita incarceration rate of women in the United States, researchers said.
Oklahoma currently imprisons 135 women for every 100,000 Oklahomans, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The national average is 67 incarcerated women per 100,000 people.
In mid-2010, according to the state Corrections Department, Oklahoma prisons housed 2,760 female offenders, most of which had very troubled histories.
“There’s a lot of history of violence, of abuse, of incest, rape, emotional physical abuse; and then you see in people that have had that kind of trauma higher incidences of running away, alcohol and drug abuse,” said Susan Marcus-Mendoza, Ph.D., the chair of the Department of Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma.
Social factors are not the only thing that leads so many women into Oklahoma prisons, according to researchers.
“We’re one of the poorest states, we have one the highest teen pregnancy rates, we have a high child abuse rate and all of that together—probably the abuse more than anything—leads to drug use,” said Dr. Susan Sharp, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the book “The Incarcerated Woman.”
“The rest of the story, however, is that we lock up people for crimes that other states would not put them in prison for,” Sharp said. “So, it’s also our laws and our application of our laws.”
Lack of education and poverty certainly are a factor, but most often it’s the sexual and physical abuse that led women to drugs and crime, said Marcus-Mendoza, also a former psychologist at a federal prison camp for women.
“There are higher incidences of these kinds of social problems—and in some cases illegal things—that maybe a lot of times an attempt to deal with the abuse and the violence that they’ve dealt with,” she said.
A survey of women admitted to an Oklahoma prison in 2010 conducted by the state Corrections Department found that 64 percent had a moderate to high need for substance abuse treatment.
In a study Sharp published last year, she surveyed 301 female inmates in Oklahoma and found 40 percent were both sexually and physically abused as children and 71 percent had been a victim of domestic abuse in adulthood.
“To blame it (imprisonment) on the women because they use drugs is missing part of the problem,” Sharp said. “I’m not saying they are not accountable, because certainly they are accountable, but we need to understand why they do what they do.”
When a woman is imprisoned often times their children also are punished.Of the female inmates surveyed by Sharp, 257 women had 760 children. Of those children, about two-thirds were under age 18.
Children with a mother in prison are going to have harder lives, Sharp said.
“I know a lot of people think that the mother that uses drugs can’t be a good mother, but that simply is not true,” she said. “We take the worst case story and extrapolate that to all women who use drugs. Most of them are decent parents that probably would be better parents if they were drug free.”
A mother’s imprisonment often leads their child to prison, Sharp said.“The children are going to grow up with more problems from the absent mother,” she said. “They’re going to have emotional and psychological problems. They will use substances to deal with those—self medicating if you will—and a high percentage will end up in prison.”
LOOK AT THE LAW
While several troubling social problems factor into why women are imprisoned in Oklahoma, there are similar problems in many places. What often sets Oklahoma apart is how tough drug and sentencing laws are applied, Marcus-Mendoza said.
“It’s not like Oklahoma is having this female crime wave,” she said.“Part of it is looking at the way Oklahoma defines felonies and the way that we do sentencings,” Marcus-Mendoza said. “The same things that might not get you prison time in another state, will get you prison time here.”
Some Oklahoma judges are too quick to lock up someone for any felony and don’t consider alternative sentencing for low-level drug convictions, Sharp said.
“We have some counties that lock up everyone who gets a felony conviction,” she said. “That is not the norm. Most of the U.S. doesn’t do that. We don’t use probation as much as other states. We have a low probation rate compared to other states.”
Marcus-Mendoza and Sharp believe that reform is needed in sentencing policies, in offerings for drug abuse treatment and early childhood trauma counseling.
“A lot of it is going to have to be policy reform in terms of statutes on felonies and sentencing and then really looking at how we deal with violence against girls and women,” Marcus-Mendoza said. “If those things were dealt with at a younger age then maybe we wouldn’t have so many women in prison.”
Paul Monies, Oklahoman database editor, contributed to this report.