USA: women in the Oklahoma prison are separated from their children

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When April sees only two backpacks in her aunt's room, she knows that Bella is no longer there. Grandparents have scope. They got custody, they put Bella in the car, they left the twins. They have another dad. They can stay with their aunt while her mother is in prison. Without letters Without calls Without any contact with the outside world. April experiences it only when she is out.

At the beginning of April, when for the first time you clean up, when you finish the courses for parents, the appointments with the social worker, the meetings with the anonymous drug addicts, they will return Bella to you. They will let her see her daughter. Then the hours pass in the rooms of the hearing, the lawyers discuss. The parents of April's former partner don't give Bella. He lost custody during his stay in the Oklahoma maximum security prison. The audition was simply held without them.

Six years have passed since April saw her daughter for the last time. Six years in which April was released from prison, he stopped the drugs and found a job, an apartment. Here she is sitting at her new dining table this afternoon.

April Weiss in her apartment in Oklahoma City.

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April Weiss in her apartment in Oklahoma City.

The two April rooms are located in a residential complex in the western part of the Oklahoma City called Verde Vista. There is not much green on the four-lane road to see. There is a pool between the apartments, which is almost exactly the same in size and features. On the dining table is a small Christmas tree. Among the remains of a fast food menu, April laid her hands on the table. He had three hearts tattooed near his right eye. One for each of his daughters. Bella's name is on her right forearm.

2.1 million people detained

That April hasn't seen her daughter for six years is a mistake in a system that separates mothers from their children. A system that imprisons a total of 2.1 million people. In terms of population, the United States ranks first in the world. In Oklahoma, around 43,000 men and women have recently been jailed. About 3000 of them are women – in terms of population, there are no other women in prison. This means that: out of 100,000 women, there are 152.

This system has not calculated that many of them are mothers. Most mothers who go to prison are single. That children often don't have anyone to take care of them. Mothers are regularly separated from their children in this way on a regular basis. Fathers almost never play a role in stories.

The US judiciary has been heavily criticized: while crime rates in the United States are lower than ever, prisons are overcrowded, especially with people detained for minor offenses and drug-related crimes. Another reason is the detention before a conviction, which should actually take place only in exceptional cases. Because the question of guilt is not clear at this time. But in the meantime, so many people are "precautionary" locked up, that some of them are released directly after the trial.

Staying in prison is not only expensive: the institutions have never been prepared for the large number of prisoners. Some states have therefore adopted reforms in recent years. Citizens of Oklahoma, for example, voted in 2016 that certain drug offenses, such as mere assets, are considered lighter than crime. So far, however, these reforms have not led to a change.

In April's apartment, pop songs came down from the bedroom. Nine-year-old twins sing karaoke. Again and again, April calls the two girls who should be quieter. April is tired. All day he sat on the forklift. She likes her job because it gives her a structure. She likes the artificial order of her apartment, she says. The dinette in the niche where his neighbor also has his dinette. The small Christmas tree. The new furniture. The big TV.

Christmas tree on the April dinner table on 11.21.2018

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Christmas tree on the April dinner table on 11.21.2018

April's story that she tells here seems tragically like many American stories. His father dies from an overdose. At 19 he goes to the armed forces. After a fight injury, he receives pain medication and becomes addicted. At one point he turns to the heroine, on Chrystal Meth – then he slips it all away. She starts selling drugs, so she is arrested for her 28th birthday. He did not deliver the material to a buyer when the money was delivered, he shows it for theft. In April, he makes an agreement: he pleads guilty and gets a ten-year probation.

Most mothers in prison are single parents

Agreements like these are one of the reasons why the Oklahoma has the largest female prison population in the United States, says Jasmine Sankofa. The researcher interviewed 160 women in Oklahoma and found that many of them plead guilty and receive a high rate of probation, even if they are not guilty or could at least negotiate a lower sentence.

Mothers in particular make this decision so that they can return to their children faster. Mothers represent the majority of women in prison: over 60 percent in state prisons (prison) and 80 percent in local prisons (prison). If they are guilty of being guilty during their probationary period, they are again behind bars. Not infrequently means to them that they lose custody of their children, as in April.

Experts therefore repeatedly request that the entire system should change. That the bail should be adapted to the prisoners' financial situation. Those punishments are abbreviated. Those therapies and integration programs must be promoted.

In his report to Human Rights Watch, researcher Sankofa describes what is wrong with the Oklahoma prison system: women are too often imprisoned before the trial and not as expected in exceptional circumstances. You cannot pay your deposit. The worst thing was the prisons, which the children did not allow as visitors in which physical contact was not allowed where letters or phone calls were not allowed. Often, women cannot even raise money for a phone conversation with their children.

After discharge, this charge does not stop. When women try to become better mothers, they are disappointed by the state, says Sankofa. I am often in debt. You will be charged for custody and deposit costs. They have to fight hard to get their children back. It is difficult to find work and an apartment after a conviction. And: the children of parents who were in prison are more likely to enter, show evidence.

In April, he is not allowed to see his daughter even after his release. Complete courses in which parents should learn to be parents again. You make a retreat. She will be clean. Again and again, talk to a lawyer in court. The judge requires family therapy. But the April insurance does not pay for it. He can't afford one on his own.

To support women like April, the Oklahoma has formed an extensive network of voluntary organizations and churches. In Tulsa, Still She Rises' lawyers struggle to get more fair judgments. In Oklahoma City, the ReMerge organization seeks to replace pre-trial detention with a pre-trial rehabilitation program that aims to integrate women into society. "So far, we have saved the state $ 14.5 million," says the organization, keeping 122 women out of prison. The Oklahoma prison problem, they mean, can also be seen and solved pragmatically.

In a small conference room of a brick building in Midtown, Oklahoma City is the head of the organization, Terry Woodland. He explains that in his opinion too much money in Oklahoma results in prison funding. The money that is missing for education or health insurance. Things that would really improve life in Oklahoma.

Roadblocked for small crimes

Woodland describes it this way: "About 30 years ago we decided to prefer" tough on crime "rather than" smart on crime "." He refers to the policy under President Ronald Reagan, who raised the minimum penalty for drug crimes and invested a lot of money in their research. Even today, his policies are responsible for most of the prisoners.

"We started to imprison men and women for minor offenses, which is the part of the detainees that we need to treat differently," says Woodland. It is also the largest part of the detainees in Oklahoma: 80% of women in prison are not present for violent crimes.

"They do not pose a threat to society, they need withdrawal, treatment, support and often there is no rehabilitation program, especially in rural areas, where finding a good lawyer is difficult." At ReMerge, women graduate, learn what it means to be a mother, organize their lives. 122 women have already finished the program. Some have even begun to study.


Stormy at the ReMerge NGO in Oklahoma City.


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Stormy at the ReMerge NGO in Oklahoma City.

One Wednesday morning in November, the women are seated in one of the basement classrooms of the building. It's the week before Thanksgiving, but many won't see their children on vacation with the family. They still have to learn what it means to be responsible for a family and for themselves: they share what has been the past weeks, they exchange advice.

One of the women is 21-year-old Stormy, who shows a photo of the prison on her cell phone. "My meth face," he says and tells his story that ends with the fact that Stormy is clean and that her daughter still lives with her, that she has a job as a waitress and no longer has to undress. It's a good story. Stormy likes to tell her.

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