"An Oklahoma Epidemic: Women Behind Bars"

Saturday, May 01, 2010

"The University of Tulsa Center for Community Research and Development Presents: An Oklahoma Epidemic: Women Behind Bars"

On Tuesday, April 20th, 2010, the Center for Community Research and Development (CCRD) hosted the forum titled “An Oklahoma Epidemic: Women Behind Bars.” Over seventy-five members of the community attended the forum to hear information and participate in a collaborative discussion on female incarceration in Oklahoma.

Dr. Laura Pitman, Deputy Director of Female Offender Operations, for the Department of Corrections, provided an overview of women in correctional facilities in Oklahoma. Among the many enlightening statistics she presented, she reported that of the 1,284 women incarcerated in 2009, the vast majority (84) had committed non-violent offenses. Further, Dr. Pitman shared that over 60% of the women incarcerated in Oklahoma had experienced physical or sexual abuse in childhood, and that over 70% of the same population experienced domestic violence as adults. Such facts were complemented with data showing that, of the 1284 female offenders received in 2009, over 60% were assessed with a moderate to high need for substance abuse treatment, and that nearly 70% of female offenders have histories of, or are currently treated for, a wide range of mental illnesses. She stressed that there are far more productive ways to treat these women than placing them in the prison system, and that by choosing to not address the needs of these women (and thereby forcing them to enter and exit prison with the same sets of needs,) the greater community is wasting its time and resources. She urged community members to share these facts with as many who would listen, and to especially consider their implications for the children and families affected.

Following Dr. Pitman, Mimi Tarrasch, Director of Special Projects at Family and Children’s Services, spoke about the Women in Recovery program. This program is an alternative to incarceration and provides convicted women who don’t qualify for other assistance programs with services tailored to their individual physical, psychological, and social needs. Funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the program offers these women access to personal health and family counseling, drug rehabilitation, and professional development opportunities, among many other services. Mimi expressed that much of the program’s success is a consequences of the community support it has received; numerous community professionals have donated their time, teaching critical skills that prepare these women for future employment opportunities.

MelissaNext, Melissa Colegrove from the Tulsa Community Service Council shared information on children of the incarcerated. She first highlighted that these children are often born into communities plagued with criminal behavior, drugs, violence, and abuse. By not accounting for the needs of these children, Melissa declared, they are by default left in the hands of family members or friends, who may or may not have the resources to adequately care for their needs. She also shared research indicating the deleterious affects on the child from motherly separation. Specifically, she shared studies indicating that children experience significant increases in behavioral problems and psychological distress as a result of being separated from their mother.

KellyLastly, Kelly Pierron, Program Manager of the Tulsa County Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative from the Community Service Council discussed the reality and difficulties of reintegration and employment post-incarceration. She highlighted the overwhelming financial obligations (e.g. fines, fees, restitution, transportation, child support, etc.) as well as the familial pressures and psychological barriers that hold women back from progressing to a life outside of drugs. She particularly stressed that most (72%) of the women leaving the prison system have an assessed educational need, and that most also have very limited or spotty work histories. Notably, getting one’s license revoked is standard for drug offenders, and retrieving it can cost more than $1000. Job searching then becomes automatically limited to opportunities easily accessed by the bus system. Changing these barriers, Kelly remarked, is both a matter of public awareness of their existence, and of community members taking action to change the system. She then concluded her talk with overviews of the current legislation that has been designed to meet these goals, as well as current federal programs that support organizations hiring qualified applicants with non-violent criminal records.

Group discussion with panelists and audience members focused on specific needs of the incarcerated, disproportionate minority representation in court and prison system and not enough access for people of color in model programs. Information on current legislation was shared.

For information on the forum please contact the CCRD office at 631-5460 or Katie Packell at Kathryn-packell@utulsa.edu.

Elana Newman