- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 16, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Untreated substance abuse problems and mental health issues are among the reasons Oklahoma leads the nation in the imprisonment of women, state corrections officials said Wednesday.

Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate is 136 per 100,000 residents, while the national rate is 83 per 100,000 residents, according to figures released as part of a daylong legislative study on the issue at the state Capitol. As of Saturday, 3,211 women were serving prison sentences in Oklahoma, and most were nonviolent drug offenders who were imprisoned for the first time.

“Could we have done something different than send them to prison?” said Mohsen Pourett, director of the Evaluation and Analysis Unit at the state Department of Corrections.

Drug offenses, including possession or distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, are the top reasons women are sent to the state’s prisons, and 33 percent of women who re-enter Oklahoma’s prison system have prior drug convictions, according to Corrections Department figures.

Susan Sharp, professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, said 75 percent of incarcerated women in the state have moderate to high needs for substance abuse treatment and that drug abuse is the most prevalent reason that women reoffend.

Many of the women become addicted to drugs and alcohol following traumatic childhood experiences in which they were physically or sexually abused, Sharp said.

“They are self-medicating with drugs,” she said. Many of the women imprisoned for drug offenses are mothers who must leave their children behind when they are sentenced to prison, destabilizing their families, she said.

Jana Morgan, chief mental health officer for the Department of Corrections, said 78 percent of female offenders are either being treated or have a history of being treated for mental health issues. Twelve percent of female offenders suffer from severe mental illness, she said.

The legislative study was requested by state Sen. Wayne Shaw, who said he is gathering information on female incarceration in the state for possible legislation.

“I want to hear the big story before I start worrying about what we have to do,” said Shaw, a Republican from Grove.

He said lawmakers have shown they are willing to spend millions of dollars to confine offenders in state prisons, but have been less supportive of programs that focus on preventing people from getting locked up.

“We’ve got to change that mindset,” Shaw said.

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