OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma needs more programs to help incarcerated mothers and their children, according to a recent study published by the Oklahoma Commission on Youth and Children.
The Sooner State, per capita, puts more women behind bars than any other state in the nation. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that 129 Oklahoma women out of 100,000 are in prison. That's more than double the national average.
Nearly 80 percent of the women in Oklahoma's prisons have children who are affected by their mother's absence and incarceration. Programs that work to meet the needs of the children, their caregivers and their mothers are needed to stop the cycle of children following their parents into prison, said Janice Hendryx, director of the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
"We as a society need to be concerned about these kids," Hendryx said. "We would like to see faith communities and the nonprofit sector work with women and become involved in their children's lives. What we've found is often women who are incarcerated don't want the state involved. They're concerned their children will be taken into custody."
Researchers who interviewed the women in prison also found that many want to keep the whereabouts of their children secret. Only a handful of women interviewed for the study provided information about their children's caretakers, and often caretakers were reluctant to discuss the children, said Susan Sharp, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma. Sharp and her students conducted the interviews for the study.
Sharp has done numerous reports on Oklahoma's female prison population. In the most recent study, fewer women reported that their children were living with a parent or relative who had abused the mother.
However, researchers did see an increase in women who were jailed for drug crimes, and many women said they took the harsher sentence in a crime to spare a male partner, Sharp said.
"We're seeing a few more white women and married women," Sharp said. "In turn, a lot of children are staying with the father, which sounds like a good thing, but it's not a good thing if the father is a meth cook."
In February, there were 2,664 women in that state's prisons. About 57 percent of them were white, and 44.2 percent of the women were being held on a drug-related offense, according to figures from the Corrections Department.
This is the second report in the past three years on women in prison. Since the 2005 report, efforts have been made within the corrections system to encourage woman to maintain relationships with their children. However, providing services to families is difficult since there is no accurate count of the number of children affected by Oklahoma's high rate of female incarceration.
"We don't have good data on the children because up until a couple of years ago, there was no focus on the children," said Debbie Mahaffey, director of treatment and rehabilitative services for the Department of Corrections.
Women's prisons have offered extended visitation for mothers and their children, parenting classes and special programs for the children of inmates.
"We're seeing the generational effect of incarceration, and we've realized we've got to do more."
BY THE NUMBERS
26.8 percent: Increase in the number of incarcerated females without a high school education from the 2005 study.
37.9 percent: Children of incarcerated women who live with their fathers. That figure has nearly doubled from the 2005 study.
Nearly 89 percent: Women surveyed who said they were either physically or sexually abused either during childhood or as an adult.
23 percent: Women surveyed who were jailed for violating probation, parole or terms of drug court.
What mothers said in survey
Researchers who did the study interviewed incarcerated mothers and the people who care for their children. Many expressed concern for the well-being of their children and had a desire to maintain a relationship with their children. Below are few excerpts from the interviews. Names of those interviewed were not published in the study:
One mother said: "My concern is that I think he needs to talk to me more on the phone. I write all the time, and let him know I love him and am thinking of him. I'm concerned that he needs to hear my voice more."
Another mother was concerned about the environment where her daughter lived: "Youngest is with father that is drugging and never home. She is 6 years old and left with (a) grandfather who is constantly drunk."
One mother was concerned about her child's caregiver: "My child is all right; he's with my mother but she is 74 years old; I pray she lives until I get out."
One 69-year-old woman was caring for daughter's child after the child's father brought the boy to her when he was 16 months old and said, "Here he is."Another woman was caring for her daughter's children because she believed the child should be reunited with her mother. "I want her mom to have her back. She belongs with her mom and she loves her mom. And her mom loves her. (She's) a good mom and she loves that baby."