Not Just for Men Anymore

 
Three summers ago, Shylena Littlejohn quit job-hopping to sell drugs full-time. Life on the clock didn't pay enough, and cooking methamphetamine offered the chance to turn $300 into a quick $5,000. So she converted her kitchen into a makeshift drug shop.   
The business didn't last long. Less than a year later, the former honor roll student returned home to find the Oklahoma City police waiting for her. Her roommate ratted her out, said Littlejohn during a phone interview from her halfway house near Tulsa. "It was kind of like a setup," she said.
  
She was sentenced to five years in prison, with two years probation. Now 24, Littlejohn is among a growing number of women incarcerated in the nation's prisons. Last year, female inmates accounted for 7 percent of all prisoners held in state and federal facilities—the highest rate since the U.S. Department of Justice started keeping records.
  
Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the Sooner State.
  
For eight of the last nine years, a greater percentage of Oklahoma women were imprisoned than in any other state in the country. The latest statistics show that in 2004, 129 out of every 100,000 females living in the state were incarcerated -- about twice the national average and more than 10 times the rate of a few states.  
  
Only in 2003 did Mississippi briefly assume the lead spot.
  
It's an infamy that troubles Oklahoma lawmakers, who have studied the problem and are conflicted over how to lower the incarceration rate.
  
"The question came up in a committee: 'Are women just meaner in Oklahoma?'" said K.C. Moon, director of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center , which studies law enforcement issues for the state. While that theory got a few laughs, Moon says the reasons are more systemic.
  
Oklahoma deals with low-level crime more harshly than other states, he said. In addition, the state spends significantly less money on social programs such as childcare and drug treatment, driving many poor women to deal drugs and shoplift to feed their addictions or support their families, he said.
                                       
"We're a conservative state. We don't like to spend money, and hope people can deal with it on their own. When people reach the depths of their problems, there is not a safety net," Moon said. "We just get the pound of flesh, the punishment part of it."
  
Corrections officials agree low-level drug criminals are packing the state's prisons, but a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin, who recently chaired an Oklahoma commission to study this issue, said the sentences were not only fair, but equitable.
  
"Oklahoma is simply tough on crime," Tony Vann, a spokesman for Fallin, said in an e-mail. "Other states are often more lenient with female offenders versus male offenders. Oklahoma is less inclined to consider gender in prosecuting individuals."
  
Vann also said Oklahoma's numbers may look higher because the national report doesn't count prisoners in county jails, where many states put their female offenders.
  
Yet Moon and other experts argue imprisonment is a less effective, and more expensive, way to break the cycle of crime. By imprisoning these women—many of whom have children—Oklahoma risks creating another generation of criminals.
  
In a 2004 report, the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth said incarceration of either parent is hard on children, but particularly when it's the mother, who may be the only adult in the household.
  
"Children are affected in many ways when a parent is incarcerated," the report stated. "In particular, academic performance, conflict with friends and caretakers, and alcohol and drug problems may be prevalent."
  
Nationally, almost 105,000 women were incarcerated in state and federal prisons in December 2004, according to Department of Justice. The rate has increased steadily, from 5.7 percent in 1990 to 6.1 percent in 1995 to 7 percent last year.
  
Paige Harrison, who co-wrote the report, said that since the mid 1990s, women have become more active in violent crime and drug offenses. And once arrested, these women are serving longer sentences than their criminal counterparts of the 1980s and 1990s.
  
Harrison says Oklahoma's large number of female inmates fits with overall regional trends. The Northeast typically incarcerates a lower number of people, both male and female, and so a state such as Rhode Island has as little as 11 women inmates per 100,000 females in the state.
  
Similarly, states in the South and Midwest with large prison populations overall also imprison a large number of women. Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Montana joined Oklahoma as the only states in 2004 with more than 100 women inmates per 100,000 females living in the state.
  
The rising female inmate population raises new issues for corrections officials. In Montana, a group of female prisoners has filed formal complaints, charging state prison officials do not give women equal opportunity for programs and jobs.
  
In California, Stephanie Covington, who studies female incarceration at the Center for Gender and Justice , said state corrections officials are beginning to understand that female inmates do not have the same needs as their male counterparts.  Specifically, Covington said corrections officials are finding better ways to bring together incarcerated mothers and their children.
  
"Fifteen years ago, they (the number of female inmates) were small enough that we weren't looking at them at all. Now we're looking at them and saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. We can't give the women what we're giving men.' They're not the same population," she said.
  
Laurie Ramey, who works at the same facility where Littlejohn is held, said she has seen a flood of repeat offenders in the five years she has worked at the Turley Correctional Center.
  
"As for these ladies, it's hard for them to find a decent job. The only options are fast food or hotel jobs. And you can't take care of a family on minimum wage," Ramey said, adding that the convict label can be a scarlet letter in Oklahoma. "Once you get a Department of Corrections number, the economy looks down on you out here."
  
To fix the problem, Ramey echoed the advice of Covington and others: spend more money on social programs and create a correctional facility that emphasizes education and rehabilitation rather than retribution. "They need computer classes," she says.
  
At the moment, Oklahoma officials are looking into a number of solutions. Vann, with the lieutenant governor's office, said Oklahoma hopes to route more women through drug programs, rather than jail, and to better treat the female convicts who have a history of mental or psychological ailments.
  
"The solutions are hard to come by," Moon said. "You can do one of two things. You can soften punishments -- which is not politically palatable. Or you can spend more money (on social programs), which is little more acceptable, but is still not fun."
  
One option is to create better prisons. At the Family Foundations Program in San Diego, a small group of women live in a dorm-style facility that emphasizes rehabilitation, rather than retribution. Imprisoned women are allowed to keep their young children—and learn parenting skills in the process.
  
Littlejohn, who has no children, is currently living in a facility that allows her to leave the halfway house to work at Sonic, a fast-food hamburger joint. At the same time, her stay gives her the chance to attend rehabilitation programs. Looking back, Littlejohn said she is ready to break with her past.
  
"I spent all that money on stupid stuff. I ruined a lot of good things in my life. It wasn't worth it." 
 
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