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Commentary
 

Women need help, not prison


Kristin Davis November 13th, 2013

It is no secret that Oklahoma not only incarcerates women at the nation’s highest rate per capita but does so at a rate nearly twice the national average. The “why” behind the statistic is also no secret, although at first glance, it may seem difficult to pin down.

Many factors contribute to the high female incarceration rate. However, the root cause is one that makes for uncomfortable conversation: the fact that women and girls in our state are not treated well.

Oklahoma has an inordinate number of girls who suffer abuse and other forms of trauma in childhood and then carry the symptoms of trauma into adulthood.

The fact that our state ranks among the top five in the U.S. for the rate of child abuse deaths is an obvious indicator of the high rate of child abuse that exists.

According to the state Department of Corrections, more than 66 percent of incarcerated women report having suffered physical or sexual abuse during childhood. Without resources to provide them with early intervention, treatment or support, these women foundered and made choices, such as self-medication, that led them on a path to prison.

I have heard people comment that incarcerated women are simply bad and deserve prison time. What the general public may not realize is that the typical woman behind bars is nonviolent and has been assessed with a need for substance abuse treatment.

Many women in prison are mothers. At one time, they were girls, mostly victims of abuse, without access to resources that would help them recover. Many women in prison — mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters — want a second chance.

They desperately want to get on the right path, make good choices, believe in themselves, have someone believe in them, create a life of success for their children, contribute to society and, ultimately, have a voice.

One Oklahoman has worked hard to shed a bright spotlight on the fact that many women in prison should be given a second chance. World-renowned and award-winning photographer Yousef Khanfar has gone behind prison walls to give a voice to women convicted of nonviolent crimes. Most touching are images of the women with their children.

Khanfar’s stark, poignant work, titled Invisible Eve, forces an uncomfortable conversation on how the women landed in prison and how childhood abuse contributed to many of their stories.

There are many ways we can provide needed resources to women who have not yet received the help they need to recover and lead healthy lives. Most importantly, Oklahomans should ask themselves why so many of our girls are suffering from childhood trauma in the first place.

Until we begin to work on the root cause of our female incarceration rate, we will remain in a reactive mode while so many of our young women continue on a devastating path toward prison.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

Davis is executive director of Oklahoma Women’s Coalition.

 
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