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.
BY JOHN ESTUS Modified: October 12, 2010 at 11:25 am •  Published: October 12, 2010
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photo - McLoud, Monday, 8/04/03: Sign at entrance to  Mabel  Bassett Correctional Center near McLoud. Staff photo by Jim Beckel.
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.

Oklahoma Kids Count 2009 Factbook

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Among the report's findings ...

• Nearly 28,000 state children, or 3 out of every 100 children, have parents in prison here.

• About 4,300 have mothers in prison and about 23,000 have fathers in prison.

• Those children are five times more likely to go to prison themselves than their peers.

• About half of the 28,000 children are younger than 10 years old.

The institute will present the findings to several lawmakers and other public officials at its annual fall forum today and Wednesday at the University of Central Oklahoma.

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