According to a study by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, female prisoners face losing custody of their children, or hefty fees to take classes to get them back.
A new joint report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) paints a bleak picture for women separated from their children while incarcerated
For nearly 40 years, women have been the fastest-growing population in American jails. Despite only making up 14 to 15 percent of the overall population in prison, around 219,000 women and girls are incarcerated in the US. The issue is no more poignant than in Oklahoma. In the state’s County Jail, the number of women in incarceration is more than twice the national average.
Over a ten-month period, researchers interviewed over 160 people to get an idea of life as a mother locked up in Oklahoma County Jail. Their findings, published yesterday, reveal how time and time again, mothers are being let down. One woman told researchers that she didn’t discover she had lost custody of one of her children until after she was released. Another has spent the past year trying to regain custody of her children by adhering to her child welfare reunification plan—but repaying the costs of domestic violence classes and child support she encountered while in prison means she fears her children will be put up for adoption. Some of the women featured in the report were still awaiting trial, others say they felt pressured into pleading guilty to ensure they got their children back as quickly as possible. “While most women admitted to jails are accused of minor crimes, the consequences of pretrial incarceration can be devastating,” reads the report.
One of the other main factors is the lack of communication—between inmates, their children, or the legal system itself. Jail visitation policies in Oklahoma often limit parent-child visitation, with many of them eliminating in-person visitation altogether. “Even when mothers do get the chance to see their children in person, it is almost always behind a glass partition with no physical contact allowed,” the report states.
The other issue is cost. A controversial pay-to-stay system where inmates are charged per day for the time spent locked up, means inmates trying to return to civilian life can find themselves with hefty fees. Varying from state to state, inmates leaving prison to start their lives again can be faced with thousands of dollars in charges. This week it was reported that Ottawa County inmates failed to pay $3 million for jail stays last year, with debt collectors only managing to recuperate 2.38 percent of debts.
What the finding means for mothers interned across the country hard to calculate according to the report: “The exact number of incarcerated parents nationally, and in Oklahoma, is not known. Nationwide jail data is limited, dated, and often not disaggregated by gender, parental status, and jurisdiction, making it impossible to obtain comprehensive figures or even reliable estimates of the parental status of women and girls admitted into local jails and prisons each year.”