Tag Archive for Incarceration of women

Oklahoma’s Cruel Drug Laws and Outdated Sentencing Guidelines Help Make it the U.S. Leader in Female Incarceration

Oklahoma State Capitol

Oklahoma State Capitol (Photo credit: StevenM_61)

At a recent forum, University of Oklahoma sociology professor Susan Sharp charged that her state’s drug laws are “mean,” and that its tough-on-crime sentencing guidelines are to blame for nearly all of the women serving lengthy prison terms there. Oklahoma’s backwards prison system provides little help to addicts and the mentally ill, and the state is full of “lock ‘em all up” politicians who are unconcerned with rehabilitating criminals.

In recent years, Oklahoma has been the state that imprisons women at the highest rate in the nation. Oklahoma locks up 128 women per 100,000—nearly twice the national average. At the end of the last fiscal year, roughly 2,600 women were incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons, a figure that has remained relatively flat since 2005. A disproportionate percentage of them are black, and 85% of all female prisoners in Oklahoma are mothers.

Sharp declared:

Women usually end up in prison due to three factors: coming from poverty-stricken backgrounds, being in relationships with men who engage in criminal behavior, and suffering from a long history of abuse. As girls growing up in these environments become women, they usually fall into a criminal lifestyle due to one of these three pathways. Yet we’ve ignored these families for generations.

Sharp complained that too many women are being sentenced to lengthy prison terms for having quantities of drugs that would bring little to no punishment in other states. She also spoke out against drug traffickers being forced to serve 85% of their sentences when drug rehabilitation would do more good at a considerably lower cost to the state.

The way Oklahoma defines drug trafficking is the root-cause of the problem. Someone arrested with five grams of crack cocaine can be charged with trafficking and face a sentence up to 25 years. Yousef Khanfar, an award-winning photographer who has spent years photographing and interviewing women in Oklahoma’s prison system, said at the same forum: “In Chicago and other places, if they found you had only five grams of crack cocaine, they would flush it down the toilet. Putting someone in prison for 25 years costs $2 million or $3 million, whereas a year in rehab costs about $50,000.

Sharp charged that Oklahoma doesn’t invest enough money in mental health facilities and drug-treatment programs. She also criticized the state’s participation in a new Justice Reinvestment Initiative program that sends men and women on parole back to prison for the slightest infraction—even missing an appointment or failing to pay a monthly fine. ““We have set up debtors’ prisons in Oklahoma,” Sharp laments.

Jane Nelson, chair of the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, said:

We hope to see legislation enacted in the next legislative session that will find alternatives to prison for women convicted of nonviolent offenses. Too many women are going to prison, destroying their families, because of addictions.

One study reported that while 40% of Oklahoma women sent to prison were black, only 29.6% of black women were placed on probation, whereas 53% of Oklahoma white women were sentenced to prison (versus 29.4% of women nationally), and a whopping 63.7% of white gals got probation.

Another study revealed that only 9.2% of Oklahoma female prisoner were found guilty of violent offenses, versus 34.6% for drug offenses and 15% for simple drug possession. Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate for drug offenders is higher than the national average. This speaks to the need for effective drug abuse programs both inside the institutions and in the communities.


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Women Are Fastest-growing Group of Incarcerated Persons in U.S.

Women dressed in prison uniforms sitting on st...

Women dressed in prison uniforms. (Photo credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University)

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), females are the fastest growing group of incarcerated persons in the United States. The annual growth rate for incarcerated women is now up to 7.5%, compared to 5.7% for men The majority of these women come from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds, are undereducated and come from below the federal poverty line. Most of them are serving time for nonviolent crimes.

An ACLU report states:

In the past 25 years the number of women and girls caught in the criminal justice system has skyrocketed. There are now more than 200,000 women behind bars and more than one million on probation and parole. Many have been swept up in the “war on drugs” and subject to increasingly punitive sentencing policies for non-violent offenders. Many of these women struggle with substance abuse, mental illness, and histories of physical and sexual abuse. Few get the services they need. The toll on women, girls, and their families is devastating.
“Of these women, a reported 85-90% have a history of domestic and sexual abuse. Their involvement in the justice system leaves many incarcerated women vulnerable to re-victimization.

Back at the end of 2001, 93,031 American women were incarcerated in federal and state prisons, making up 6.6% of the total incarcerated population. In 2010, more than 200,000 women were behind bars, most of them women of color. Hispanic women are incarcerated nearly twice the rate of white women, and black women are locked up at four times the rate of white women.

Many women come to prison addicted to drugs. Nearly two-thirds of females were primary guardians for their children prior to being incarcerated. Imprisoned women experienced a higher rate of childhood trauma than men. Women typically suffer more from mood and anxiety disorders.

Studies show that the way in which men and women cope while imprisoned differs in that women tend to form family structures, while male prisoners tend to isolate themselves and be more aggressive towards the other inmates. Women are more likely than men to seek psychiatric help, but only one-quarter follow through and get treatment.

The majority of imprisoned women have suffered abuse and experience post-traumatic stress disorder while behind bars. Seventy percent of guards in federal women’s correctional facilities are male, and rape, assault and groping during pat frisks are not uncommon—reinforcing inmates’ feeling of powerlessness. Women who retaliate face prolonged segregation, loss of “good time” and detrimental write-ups, which discourage future acts of resistance.

Women in prison suffer disproportionately from AIDS/HIV, infectious diseases, reproductive issues and diseases that are common to minorities and poor people, including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and malnutrition. The U.S. prison system does not well accommodate to women’s healthcare needs.

One major effect of prison is the assault on relationships between parents and their children. Fully 2.4 million American children have a parent behind bars today and 7 million, or 1 in 10 children, have a parent under criminal justice supervision—in jail, prison, on probation or on parole.

Silja J.A. Talvi, author of Women Behind Bars, says:

During my visit to the segregated housing unit of the world’s largest women’s prison, in Chowchilla, CA, I was soon surrounded by the screams of these prisoners—moans and wails echoing off the concrete walls. It was disturbing to see women in what is a barbaric insane asylum, a place so invisible to the public and tax money.

“Nearly every one of the 100 women I interviewed had a serious history of trauma, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or domestic violence. Many had been raped. More than a third of the women entering the prison system were homeless, while 70% had moderate or severe mental illness.

“Since ex-convicts have to check that criminal record box on employment forms, and since they are not given public housing, these people will fall into an even lower class and will commit more crimes, sometimes more serious crimes. We are guaranteeing a more unstable society.

Related articles

Wikipedia entry on Incarceration of Women
Solinger, Rickie (2010). Interrupted Life:Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States. Berkely, CA.: University of California.

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