In 2013 the Center for American Progress rated Oklahoma as one of the worst places to live for women. Why? Well, in addition to our above average gender pay gap, ranking near the bottom for women in poverty, and the huge number of uninsured women, Oklahoma has more women in prison than any other state in America.
As a background, the United States imprisons more of its population than any other nation in the world. In the last 20 years, the percent growth of female inmates was twice as much as male inmates. So, as a country we have a trend. When you look at my own state, Oklahoma, we have experienced exponential growth in female incarceration not seen in any other state. As of 2015, Oklahoma puts 127 of every 100,000 women behind bars. Compare that to 63 of 100,000 as the national average. From 2015 to 2016, the number of incarcerated women in Oklahoma increased by 9.5% while the number of incarcerated men decreased by 1%. This begs two questions from me: Why do we have so many women in prison? And then, are we any safer or better off with all these women behind bars?
First, at least 2/3 of the women in Oklahoma who are in prison have committed non-violent crimes. Many are incarcerated due to drug offenses, which up until recently carried serious jail or prison time due to Oklahoma laws. There is no compelling evidence that we are any safer with a high female incarceration rate. According to the our state Bureau of Investigation, violent crime in Oklahoma was up about 3.5% from 2013 to 2015, and non-violent crime was down by about 4.5% in that same time frame. The overall violent crime rate in Oklahoma has decreased 7.3% in the last 10 years, while the rate of female incarceration doubled in the same time frame.
For the last couple of years I have given a lecture to our second year medical students on the state of women’s health in Oklahoma. The good, the bad, the ugly. I always touch on our incarceration rate. Why? Because our other state health indicators are major reasons why we incarcerate so many women. 1 in 25 women enters prison pregnant. Over 2/3 of incarcerated women have a minor child. The consequences for these children are devastating. Also, more than half of incarcerated women in our state have experienced domestic violence in adulthood and/or abuse in the home as a child. About 70% have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Why does this matter? Because in 2013, our state ranked 46th (where 1st is best) in mental health expenditures per capita that were state funded. Most women in our state who enter prison live in poverty and have a lack of education. Again, we rate 40th out of 50 for number of women in poverty. When women in Oklahoma are marginalized in health and economics, they are disproportionately more likely to end up in prison. But is the news all bad? Fortunately, no. In 2015, our state passed 2 bills that allowed reduced sentences for drug offenses and judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences. Then, in 2016, the people of Oklahoma passed a state question that made certain drug and theft related offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies. The money saved from the reclassification of these crimes will be used for rehabilitation programs, thanks to another state question supported by the voters in my state. Tulsa County, along with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, have established a Women in Recovery program. Since 2009, they have helped 475 women and over 1,000 children. But we still have a long way to go.
Why should you care? What can you do? I think, no matter what state you live in, the rate and growth of female incarceration in our country should alarm you. As a gynecologist I’m probably biased but I think we can measure the success of our nation by the success of its women. If we can keep women out of prison their children are more likely to succeed in school and avoid drug abuse and addiction. We should be advocating for increased mental health services in our states and in our nation; for reduction in the gender pay gap and other measures to reduce the number of women and families in poverty. We should find ways to reduce domestic violence in our nation. We should support efforts like the Women in Recovery program, and drug and mental health courts that focus on rehabilitation services. No one knows this better than my sister-in-law, who also happens to be editor-in-chief of this blog. She works in the drug court system. She sees women as offenders every day in her home state of Missouri. She knows it takes, sometimes, half a dozen times or more for offenders to find recovery. She will be the first to tell you there are no easy fixes and no simple answers. But I believe if we begin to change the idea that prison is the solution, then we can begin to create a culture where we focus on restoration and rehabilitation for our women. I think we will all benefit. We have a shared brokenness. We should share in the efforts of recovery.