Parents in prison cause problems for Oklahoma children

A new report shows children whose parents are imprisoned are five times more likely to go to prison themselves than their peers. Oklahoma lawmakers hope keeping parents — particularly mothers — out of prison helps solve the problem.

McLoud, Monday, 8/04/03: Sign at entrance to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center near McLoud. Staff photo by Jim Beckel.



An Oklahoma mother is sent to prison.

Her child is left motherless, develops emotional problems and flunks out of school. The child has a baby of her own before turning to drugs, a life of crime or both.

Then that mother is sent to prison, leaving another child with a parent behind bars.

This bleak cycle likely happens at a higher rate in Oklahoma than any other state, a new report shows.

Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state, and their children are five times more likely to end up in prison than their peers, according to the annual Kids Count Factbook from the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

Lawmakers are taking notice of the issue as they grapple with an underfunded, overcrowded state prison system.

The report states more than half of the nearly 26,000 people in state prisons are parents whose imprisonment means their children face a higher risk of going to prison themselves than their peers.

Policymakers want to stop that domino effect, particularly when it comes to locking up mothers who committed nonviolent crimes.

“It’s very clear to me that in Oklahoma, we can no longer afford to go down the path that we’re on related to incarcerating nonviolent female offenders,” said House Speaker-designate Kris Steele, R-Shawnee.

Without a mother

For nearly two decades Oklahoma has incarcerated women at a rate higher than any other state. About 190 of every 100,000 adult women in Oklahoma are in state prisons.

“It’s like a cloud over the child,” said Linda Terrell, executive director for the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

Terrell said children of imprisoned parents feel a sense of shame and entrapment that is different from children whose parents are out of the household for other reasons, such as military deployment.

“It holds them back,” Terrell said.

Adults and children alike often pass unfair judgment on children whose parents are imprisoned, putting those children at a disadvantage to peers, Terrell said.

Imprisoned mothers have problems, too. They worry about how their children are doing in school, at home and socially. They also stress about keeping in touch with them while in prison.

“It would be the same issues that any mom would be concerned about,” said Laura Pitman, female offender operations deputy director at the state Corrections Department. “There is tremendous guilt involved.”

Pitman said the Corrections Department offers several programs to imprisoned mothers to help them reunite with their children upon release. In addition, imprisoned mothers often bond in prison and form their own support groups.

Steele said lawmakers conducted a study last year that showed 70 percent of Oklahoma children whose parents had been incarcerated wound up being incarcerated themselves at some point in life.

Legislation Steele authored last year attempts to put a dent in that number. House Bill 2998 set up pilot programs in Oklahoma City and Tulsa that provide alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent female offenders focusing on prevention and treatment instead of incarceration.

One of the program’s goals is to keep mothers in the household so their children aren’t led astray.

Steele said prevention programs are cheaper than incarceration, which he hopes opens the eyes of lawmakers as they deal with another state budget shortfall next year.

“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for nonviolent offenses, but we can have much better results,” Steele said.

In addition to the pilot programs Steele’s bill established, two House Democrats from Tulsa, Jabar Shumate and Jeannie McDaniel, plan to try again next year to form a task force to help children with incarcerated parents.

Their effort to form the task force last session failed.




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