Puzzle of high incarceration rate for women tackled

Saturday, July 12th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A state task force wants to know why so many Oklahoma women land in prison and what can be done to reverse the trend.

Oklahoma imprisons 130 women per 100,000 residents, tops among all states. The national rate is 58 per 100,000.

Statistics show it is not a regional problem. Neighboring Kansas incarcerates only 36 women per 100,000, New Mexico imprisons 50 and Arkansas 57.

Debbe Leftwich, chairwoman of the Commission on the Status of Women, has read studies that give clues to the answer, "but right now it's still a puzzle to me."

After all, she says, there's nothing to suggest that Oklahoma women are any meaner or less trustworthy than those in other states.

"I've been in other states and Oklahoma is pretty well known for how pleasant our people are," she said. "Look how we respond, both men and women, to a crisis."

A law directing the commission to advise the governor and lawmakers on gender bias issues was amended this year to require the task force study on the state's female incarceration rate.

At its first meeting last week, Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, was elected chairwoman of the task force and state Sen. Dick Wilkerson, D-Atwood, was named vice chairman.

Members heard statistics showing the vast majority of women are sent to prison in Oklahoma for nonviolent offenses such as drug and alcohol abuse.

One statistic that caught the eye of Leftwich was that the state's arrest rate is comparable to other states, possibly suggesting that women are handled differently in the courts in Oklahoma than they are elsewhere.

Fallin said the commission should endeavor to protect society, but cutting down on female imprisonment will be a help to families and children.

Among other things, the commission directed staff to look at such issues as the use of methamphetamines, a growing problem, and the status of the mental health of women inmates.

Both Wilkerson and Leftwich said they are concerned about reports the jails and prisons are, in effect, serving as holding areas for the mentally ill.

Wilkerson said he also suspects there is racial bias as well as gender bias in the system.

Jerry Massie, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the extent of the number of women in prison per capita in Oklahoma was not known until recent years when they were separated in the calculation of incarceration rates.

The task force was provided a copy of a survey conducted by the corrections agency in 2002 of its female prison population.

It showed 43 percent of female inmates are minorities, including almost 20 percent who were black. Blacks comprise 7.6 percent of Oklahoma's total population.

More than half of the female inmates reported having a high school education or the equivalent and 20 percent had gone to college.

Fifty-eight percent lived with both parents as a child and about 50 percent had been married only once, although 41 percent said they were divorced or separated when sent to prison.

About 44 percent of the women had no prior sentences and 37 percent of the inmates with prior sentences did not get in trouble as juveniles.

Thirty-five percent of the female inmates said they were sexually abused as a child.

More than 71 percent had been involved in an abusive relationship, including almost 60 percent with an intimate partner.

Eighty-one percent of the incarcerated women had children, with almost half of the children under age 12.

Sixty-one percent said they had abused drugs and 33 percent said they abused alcohol.

Asked if their parents abused drugs, 68 percent said "no," while 45 percent said their parents abused alcohol.