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Oklahoma Watch: Task force looks at fathers in prison

A new study tells the number of Oklahoma children whose fathers are incarcerated. Some advocates are calling for a re-examination of the father-child relationship when considering where to incarcerate men who are fathers.
BY JACLYN COSGROVE Published: November 20, 2011

Tonya Finley has been taking her granddaughters to see their father often enough that the prison guards know them.

“Savannah will go up to them and ask, ‘Will you please let my daddy come home?' and, they'll go ‘We're just about to,'” Finley said.

At the first of every month, Finley and her granddaughters Alissa, 9, and Savannah, 6, leave their home in Hugo at 4 a.m. to visit the girls' father and Finley's son, Shawn Ragan, at a correctional facility in Tennessee Colony, Texas, about 170 miles south of Hugo.

Ragan, 28, was convicted of aggravated robbery in 2006 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was arrested in 2005 after he used a broken beer bottle to rob an elderly couple while at a lake, according to court records.

His daughters are two of at least 1,800 children in Oklahoma with parents incarcerated outside of the state.

Little was known about this group of children until recently when the Children of Incarcerated Parents Task Force collected the data in cooperation with Angel Tree, a prison fellowship program.

Behavioral cycle

Finley has noticed a behavioral cycle with her granddaughters that centers around their prison visits. After the girls spend time with their father at the prison, they appear calmer and happier. But as the month goes on, they'll start to act out and get depressed.

“After they go see him, and he sits with them and rocks them and talks to them, on the way home, they're two completely different kids,” Finley said.

Imprisonment of fathers is likely to disrupt a child's home, with most of their children losing financial support and many losing an important source of nurturing, according to the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

Child advocates and experts report that children of incarcerated parents run a higher risk of going to prison themselves and also are more likely to live below the poverty line. Additionally, Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the nation and is generally in the top five in incarcerating men.

“I think the average Oklahoman would be amazed at the number (of offenders) out of state and their kids are here,” said Lisa Smith, who leads the task force. “It was certainly a surprise to us.”

Smith, Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth director, said these children face different obstacles than children of Oklahoma offenders.

For one, the distance between the parents and children makes visitation tougher, she said. Also, long-distance phone calls to prison can come at a high cost to families.

State inmate data

The task force has also collected data about fathers in Oklahoma Corrections Department custody. From data collected from 1,363 male offenders at eight prison facilities, researchers created estimates to represent how many children the entire male offender population had.

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