America’s Other Family-Separation Crisis

Sarah Stillman for The New Yorker writes:

Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, as the war on drugs took off, incarceration rates in the U.S. grew explosively. Only in the past eight years have rates finally begun to fall for most demographic groups, with one alarming exception: women and girls.

America imprisons women in astonishing numbers. The population of women in state prisons has increased by more than eight hundred per cent in the past four decades. The number of women in local jails is fourteen times higher than it was in the nineteen-seventies; most of these women haven’t been convicted of a crime but are too poor to post bail while awaiting trial. The majority have been charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession, shoplifting, and parole violations. The result is that more than a quarter of a million children in the U.S. have a mother in jail. One in nine black children has a parent who is, or has been, incarcerated.

For the children of incarcerated parents, the toll can be profound.

Nowhere is this problem starker than in Oklahoma, which has the highest rate of women’s incarceration in the nation. Eighty-five per cent of these women are mothers.

Severe trauma is a major contributing factor in female incarceration. So is addiction. Eighty-six per cent of jailed women have experienced sexual violence, and the majority have problems with substance abuse.

Oklahoma routinely prosecutes women for “failure to protect” their children, even when the women are victims, too. After the boyfriend of a twenty-one-year-old Tulsa woman named Heidi Marie Benjamin killed her infant son, Benjamin was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for not preventing the abuse. “This is a situation of your making,” the judge told Benjamin. “You did nothing to protect yourself and him.” Sarah McAmis, the Tulsa Assistant District Attorney, told the local paper that she was “very pleased” with the outcome, even though she’d been pushing for a life sentence. Dozens of women in the state have been imprisoned on similar charges—sometimes receiving longer sentences than the men who inflicted the abuse. In one high-profile case, a woman named Tondalao Hall was charged with failing to protect her children after her abusive boyfriend fractured their infant daughter’s legs and ribs. The boyfriend reached a plea deal and received eight years of probation, with no further jail time. Hall was sentenced to thirty years in prison.

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