Guest Blog (Amy Santee): Turning The Tide On Female Incarceration

From time to time, we use the OK Policy blog to post submissions we receive from Oklahomans who have interesting perspectives on important policy issues for the state. This entry is from Amy Santee, Senior Program Officer with George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa. The opinions stated below are not necessarily the opinions of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

Currently, the State of Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state in the nation, a rate of 134 per 100,000, compared to a national average of 69 per 100,000. Tulsa County incarcerates at an even higher rate, 169 women per 100,000.

This practice has a devastating impact on thousands of children around our state.  There are an estimated 4,500 minor children in Oklahoma with their mothers in prison.  These children are at greater risk of school failure, depression, drug and alcohol abuse. Without a successful intervention, they are likely to become the next generation of inmates at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.  Incarcerating non-violent female offenders does not make economic sense, nor does it protect the public safety.  Is it not better public policy to provide these women with treatment and the tools to become better parents and productive citizens?

George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) has made the issue of female incarceration a priority and has led efforts to make a systemic change to Oklahoma’s statistics.   GKFF has invested nearly two million dollars on diversion services, pre-release counseling and treatment, services to children of incarcerated parents and reentry services. In January, the Foundation helped sponsor the Summit on Incarcerated Women as part of the Complex Dialogues series at Oklahoma Christian University, which was an important step in raising public awareness of the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for non-violent female offenders.

GKFF’s principal funding has been in the investment of significant resources on model diversion services, as the Foundation believes that the true value is derived from rehabilitating these nonviolent offenders and reunifying families.  Recognizing the lack of viable alternatives to prison for women in Tulsa, GKFF, an organization committed to improving the lives of at risk young children, and Family & Children’s Services (F&CS), Tulsa’s premier family service and mental health provider, co-designed and implemented the Women in Recovery (WIR) pilot program in June 2009.

WIR, based on proven models, offers a cost-effective and holistic approach to diverting female offenders from incarceration in Tulsa County.  WIR has already served 33 nonviolent women offenders who together have 73 children. The Program is a true wraparound model, changing the way traditional services are delivered, allowing women the maximum potential to succeed by providing them the necessary tools to regain their independence financially and exit the judicial system.  Focusing primarily on substance abuse and mental health treatment, and providing safe housing and transportation from the beginning, each woman’s total needs are met.

In building on the success of Women in Recovery, HB2998 proposed this session by Rep. Kris Steele of Shawnee represents landmark legislation.  The bill would establish pilot programs, consisting of private donations and state funds, “to provide diversion programs to reduce the high rate of female incarceration and to provide reentry services that both employ evidence-based practices and techniques.”

George Kaiser Family Foundation proposes including a $500,000 cash match to the state funds.  Thus, $1 million will be appropriated to the implementation of a state pilot diversion program and a reentry program.  Half of these funds will supplement the work currently being undertaken by Women In Recovery to reduce female incarceration, while the other half will go to the implementation of a reentry programs that will provide support services, employment opportunities and other needed resources for female offenders and their children.

The need for change in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is critical, and the total approach represented by this bill is impressive.  HB 2998 passed the full House in February by a unanimous bipartisan vote of 92-0. The bill would still need to pass the full Senate and be signed by the Governor to become law. However, these early successes provide real hopeful signs that the tide is beginning to turn and the issue of female incarceration is beginning to change.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

5 thoughts on “Guest Blog (Amy Santee): Turning The Tide On Female Incarceration

  1. The Oklahoma Women’s Coalition concurs that this is an important issue. The Coalition has endorsed passage of HB 2998. Please tell your elected officials that Oklahoma needs to find smart, safe, creative ways to reduce the rate at which we incarcerate women. Tell them also that the state pilot diversion/reenrty program that HB 2998 establishes is a good way to begin to make positive change in this issue area.

  2. As a retired teacher who served a low socio-economic district in California for 32 years, I agree completely with the above recommendation, and urge everyone’s whole hearted support. I’m certainly not a bleeding heart, but current policies are not effective, and they cost too much to be ignored. We can do better. If our state legislature would stop wasting time on nonsense we might be able to solve some of our more serious problems such as this. State leaders say they want to cut costs. This is a good place to start.

  3. As an advocate living in the third largest county in Oklahoma I want to commit, the women incarceration efforts must begin at the front end (the jails) to make any real difference. All women in prison in Oklahoma has been in jails but not all women in jails have been to prison. The DOC is funded by the state while jails are funded by the counties in most cases. The shift of DOC incarceration to county incarceration is obvious. Look how many new expanded jails are being built throughout Oklahoma. Moving women from DOC to the county detention centers is not an alternative to incarceration. While the efforts of the Kaiser Foundation and Amy Santee to create a momentum to change Oklahomans attitudes statewide is a good start it makes sense to focus on a community buy-in where these women were originally arrested. Without the county and community being committed these women can’t really come home. The Womens Summit was a great start and I hope with the passage of HB 2998 these forums will continue throughout the state and include stakeholders from every community in Oklahoma.

  4. Throwing more money–whether foundations’ or States’–at fine-tuning the (proven ineffective!) incarceration model cannot fix its flaws. There are simple questions: Are we punishing these persons? What is punishment? Who is to be so punished? When should we punish such persons? To what end/goal? Who will establish such goals? Shall we keep statistics on what works? Shall only the State inflict the punishment? Which private private providers shall we license? Rich ones? Poor ones? When shall we revoke such licenses? …
    In short, there is no dialog because there is no set of goals and no commonality of approach. When we can define punishment, we can begin to discuss how to create punishment and how to make it function toward accomplishing our (as yet unstated) goals.

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