For The Children Weekly Column

Family Support Critical for Children of Incarcerated Oklahomans

PHOTO CUTLINE – OICA CEO Joe Dorman (left) joined Kris Steele with The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) for a tour of the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center (MBCC). Joining them on the tour were (from left) Laynie Gottsch with Sarkeys Foundation; Lashonda Bishop, TEEM volunteer and master’s degree student at OU; and Cheryl Williamson, peer recovery support specialist and volunteer coordinator for MBCC activities.
Courtesy Photo

Last week, I toured Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility led by my former legislative colleague Kris Steele, now the director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) in Oklahoma City.

TEEM is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to breaking cycles of incarceration and poverty through education, personal development, and work readiness training. The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) is partnering with TEEM to develop a project to help reduce, and hopefully end, group placement of foster youth in Oklahoma.

Kris regularly conducts these tours with guests. We sat down with the inmates who are taking college courses to prepare themselves with job skills or employment educational requirements they will need when released; some simply want to reach a personal goal.

The courses are not “free” for the inmates: they pay through the very minimal funds generated from jobs inside the razor-wired facility, or with grants from foundations – including Sarkeys, Oklahoma City Community Foundation, Avedis, and Inasmuch – to help cover costs.

We heard stories of remorse for the crimes committed, and sometimes frustration about not having received assistance which would have helped prevent the crimes they committed. One woman shared that she was a sex trafficking victim when she ran away from an abusive situation as a teenager, only to eventually fall into far worse situations. Another woman committed a violent murder while using meth and has spent decades in the facility; she shared how being off the drug has changed her for the better.

I find it ironic that we call this system the “Department of Corrections” when most of the inmates do not receive adequate counseling services to help them correct the behavior or the circumstance which led to their crimes. Make no mistake, each these women hold out hope that they will someday be free with a second chance.

One even suggested the creation of a program to allow voluntary counseling between offenders and victims (or victims’ families) to help both sides heal. Something like this would be exceptional, not only leading to rehabilitation, but also providing a source of hope for the families of offenders and victims.

Many of these “justice-involved” Americans have children and families who want to be reunited. This is statistically a good thing for the children. U.S. children of incarcerated parents are an extremely vulnerable group, and much more likely to have behavioral problems and physical and mental health conditions than their peers, including the increased likelihood they will themselves end up incarcerated.

According to a Prison Policy Initiative report in 2022, 47% of the approximately 1.25 million people in state prisons are parents of minor children, and about 19% of those children are age 4 or younger. Altogether, parents in state incarceration reported 1.25 million minor children, exactly mirroring the number of incarcerated. Research indicates that children of incarcerated parents face formidable cognitive and health-related challenges throughout their development. This is creating a repeat of the cycle by stacking the odds against these youth.

OICA partners annually with the Hoops 4 Heroes nonprofit which sends young Oklahomans with an incarcerated parent through a three-day leadership camp tied around basketball. Another local nonprofit, Oklahoma Messages Project, records a video of an inmate reading a book to their children, and then provides the book and the video so the child can read along with the parent.

As a society, we need to do much better about providing opportunities for interaction with these parents and children. This can provide hope for successful rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, and breaking the generational chain of crime. Rehabilitation and family support must be a higher priority than simply exacting vengeance.