New Position in OK Reflects Growing Awareness

In reading an article on Oklahoma’s appointment of its first-ever deputy director of female offender operations–whose salary is comparable to that of Alabama’s latest parole board appointee–I could not help but reflect on Alabama’s women in prison.  Oklahoma’s DOC Director Justin Jones was “tired of being no. 1”– referring to Oklahoma having the highest incarceration rate of women in the U.S.  In Oklahoma, 132 women of 100,000 are incarcerated, which is twice the national average.  Alabama isn’t too far behind, ranking 15th nationally.

The state’s position in the rankings is evidence of just how many women are entering Alabama’s criminal justice system and how fast, as well as evidence of the much slower rate at which women offenders are being released.  In addition, Alabama’s position in the rankings only tells the number of women entering prison each year, not addressing other issues such as prison occupancy rates. 

As Oklahoma’s new deputy director of female offender corrections Laura Pitman responded when asked about her new duties at the ODOC, “I think it’s a really complex picture of how women get to us (and) what their histories are in terms of trauma, substance abuse and the many social ills Oklahoma as a state faces.”  Pitman’s right.  Women’s imprisonment is a complex issue.  In fact,  numerous factors have been identified as placing women at high risk for incarceration, such as untreated mental illness, poverty, untreated addiction, and abuse during childhood or adulthood.  National and state statistics, as well as last year’s report released by the Alabama Commission on Girls and Women in the Criminal Justice System, show that the majority of women in Alabama’s prisons are indeed serving time for non-violent offenses. 

The visibility and growing understanding of these individual high-risk factors, each complex in its own right, is an incredible opportunity to do more, to flesh out the “complex picture” Pitman described and focus that picture through a gender-responsive lens both in and out of prison, as well as seek a sustainable reduction in the number of women in prison in Alabama.  Oklahoma’s creation of Pitman’s position was not the end of solutions for the rate of women incarcerated in Oklahoma, nor was it thesolution.  Rather, Pitman is a start and Alabama has revved its engines too. From community-active citizens to pro-active agency leaders, we have all started to improve the lives and livelihoods of Alabama’s women.  We just have to keep going.

Catherine Roden-Jones

AWRN Coordinator


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