Op-Ed: Female Incarceration: the Real War on Families

By Audra Brulc


Female incarceration is an issue that I became particularly interested in after attending a presentation on the “war on drugs” at OU’s Sooner Mosaic Social Justice Symposium last year. (Shameless plug: register here for this year’s symposium!) In August, after attending a presentation on women in prison at Oklahoma Policy Institute’s Summer Policy Institute, I became armed with the stark facts about female incarceration in Oklahoma. I’ll list these resources, and others, at the end of this post. As awareness about the issue of female incarceration and US drug policy spreads (thanks, Orange is the New Black), I hope that these facts will be enlightening and useful to our readers.

The Facts

There’s a lot to be said about the reality of female incarceration, especially in Oklahoma, but the facts really do speak for themselves. Let’s take a look at the statistics so that we’ll be equipped to break down their implications:

  • According to the 2010 documentary War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Children They Leave Behind:
    • 90% of female inmates are non-violent offenders
    • 80% are mothers
    • 75% have lived below the poverty line
    • 60% have been physically and/or sexually abused in their lifetimes
    • 50% did not finish high school
  • Oklahoma consistently leads the nation in female incarceration.
    • As of 2009, the average rate of female incarceration was 68 per 100,000 women in the general population. In Oklahoma, that number rose to 132.
    • In Oklahoma, “14 counties incarcerate females at 300 percent above the national average” (Source: OK DOC)
    • Around 80% of female inmates in Oklahoma are non-violent offenders
    • Over half of incarcerated women in the state are mothers (Source: The University of Oklahoma)
    • The majority have experienced domestic violence and a family history of “dysfunction and instability”
    • 64% of female inmates received in FY 2010 needed substance abuse treatment. Less than 30% of these women were likely to actually receive it, based on previous years’ statistics (Source: OK DOC)

Incarceration as a Social Justice Issue

So what does female incarceration mean for social justice activists? I could write pages and pages on this topic, but for brevity’s sake I’ll focus on our skewed perceptions of drug charges, mothers in prison, and what happens to women once they are released.

One of the key issues at play is the nature of the crimes for which women in Oklahoma are being incarcerated. We already know that most female offenders are serving time for non-violent crimes. Furthermore, according to statistics presented by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, about 24% of sentences in FY 2010 were for possession of controlled substances, and about 19% were for distribution. These statistics continue to remain steady because of US drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. As both inmates and academics have pointed out, the current US criminal justice system is primarily focused on treating drug abuse as criminal activity. The alternative would be a public health approach, which would focus much more heavily on rehabilitation. Instead, as many of the women interviewed in War on the Family observed, the system seems intent on maintaining a cycle of recidivism and re-incarceration. If we cannot help liberate women from oppression based on class, race, and gender, circumstances which help incentivize the abuse and sale of illegal drugs, we are perpetuating an incredibly oppressive cycle. As long as we accept the current state of our justice system, we are accepting this cycle of poverty, abuse, and incarceration.

As the statistics show, many female inmates are also mothers. They are separated from their children, resulting in tremendous stress—sometimes even PTSD—for their children, who often must care for themselves and their younger siblings while coping with feelings of anger and betrayal. Women who give birth in prison are often shackled during the process and are separated from their infants after hours or days (ACLUWar on the Family). This psychological turmoil reinforces the cycle of drug abuse and incarceration for inmates and their children (ACLU).

After women leave prison, they are left with little resources and support. Thankfully, programs like Women in Recovery now exist to help female inmates reintegrate into society. However, former inmates have a hard time finding employment, reconnecting with their families, and getting care for their battles with addiction and mood disorders (War on the Family). And remember in Orange is the New Black when Taystee got out of prison, only to return because she couldn’t find a job and was still indebted to the prison system? Yeah, that actually happens.

My Take

When I first learned about our discriminatory drug laws and the numbers behind female incarceration, I was shocked. Like many other social justice issues, this is a reality that forces us to challenge our deeply socialized beliefs and assumptions about criminal justice and, at a much more basic level, right and wrong. It’s easy for us to make the surface level diagnosis that breaking the law is wrong and criminals should go to jail. However, there’s a lot to parse in that statement. First, it assumes that a society’s laws are inherently just. Second, it reinforces the idea that drug addiction is a criminal act, rather than a public health issue. Finally, it relies on the notion that retributive justice is the best way to deal with criminal acts. However, when we approach drug addiction as a health concern that requires rehabilitation and social oppression as a factor that continually subjugates certain social groups, we realize that we must transcend the notions of retributive justice with which we have been raised and act with compassion, empathy, and a true dedication to social justice.


Like I said, I could spend years researching and writing on this topic. If this is something you’re interested in, I would encourage you to do some digging (try starting with The Sentencing Project) and explore the web of interconnected issues that has created this pervasive injustice.

These are some of the sources that I used, as well as a few additional places to find information on this topic:

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