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By Nehemiah D. Frank, founder & editor-in-chief
I remember receiving a phone call from my grandmother years ago. It was one of those distressing calls about a family emergency that was unfolding in real-time.
Immediately, I was emotionally swept and overcome by the feeling of helplessness. Unfortunately, I was hundreds of miles away, practically on the other side of the country.
The urgency in my grandmother’s tone of voice from the other side of the line caused me to press my right ear tightly against the phone’s speaker. I listened and felt my heart pounding in my chest, as if, I myself, had been sentenced to serve hard-time in Oklahoma due to a crime I had no involvement in crafting.
My growing frustration and pain, from what I was hearing, billowed and swelled creating that lump and agitating sensation in my throat.
“So-in-so has been arrested for doing XYZ to a white woman in a store in east Tulsa,” my grandmother sadly explained.
As I understood my grandmother’s account of what had occurred, between my newly locked up relative and the white woman, it sounded like a justified ass whoppin’ in the hood because this white woman had allegedly placed her hands on my minor-aged cousin.
In fact, I recall my grandmother telling me that this white woman had slapped my cousin’s glasses off.
Although I’m unaware and don’t recall my grandmother telling me about the events leading up to this adult child abuser feeling the need to place her hands on my little cousin, it’s never okay to attack a child in such a violent way.
Needless to say, when you’re a black person in America and living in the South, you grow to learn that the justice system usually doesn’t treat people who look like you in an equitable manner.
It hurt me to hear that my family member would be spending time in the system, but I was even more bothered by the fact that this family member had two elementary-aged children that she no longer would be unable to raise.
It was her first offense, and she was a mother.
She was a hardworking American and to all appearances a good person, who took classes at the local community college.
I was a middle schooler when her children were abruptly affected by maternal incarceration.
She was locked away for nearly a decade before I saw her in a halfway house sometime later — when I was a sophomore in college. Her children had gone through middle school and graduated from high school before she was released.
As for my family member, although I am not an attorney, I humbly believe that a restorative justice approach should have been applied as opposed to shipping her to a facility hundreds of miles away from her children and family.
Luckily, we have a sizable family and were able to take care of her children. They’re both college graduates and doing quite well now. But, as an educator and an adult, I often think about my students and children with incarnated parents, people in our society who don’t have the type of family support my cousins and aunt received.
All that time, I sat and thought: Her offense didn’t warrant such a long prison sentence in an Oklahoma prison.
Since the ‘80s, Oklahoma has grown to double the national average for incarcerated women, and 80 percent of those women are mothers. They are the mothers of children who are adversely impacted by maternal incarceration.
The majority of these children are elementary age, adolescents, which is a vital time for social behavior development.
Like my family member, many of these Oklahoma incarcerated mothers are first time offenders. Half of these mothers are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses, which should warrant a rehab house and not incarceration.
Furthermore, incarcerated mothers are more likely to have been the head of the household for their children before being imprisoned.
Separating children from their mothers is the opposite of correcting healthily and holistically and is the farthest practice from the restorative justice approach.
Forty percent of incarcerated Oklahoma mothers don’t have a high school diploma. The majority of them are mothers who have low educational attainment.
Students of incarcerated mothers are at a heightened risk of adverse outcomes: mentally, socially and academically.
Henceforth, separating children from their mothers for first-time offenses substantially contributes to the generational poverty cycle. I, therefore, believe other alternatives should be highly considered.
The state’s mass incarceration problem is our societal and collective issue and underscores the need for mental health professionals in schools that serve student populations with high rates of parental incarceration.
Today in Oklahoma, 6,000 children are adversely affected by maternal incarceration, and that number doesn’t include children whose mothers are in county jails. And it doesn’t include the children who have incarcerated fathers.
For more information on maternal incarceration in Oklahoma see: Oklahoma Study of Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children – 2014
Nehemiah D. Frank is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Black Wall Street Times, an educator, TEDx alum, blogger for EdPost, and Community Advisory Board Member for the Tulsa World.