Photo from Oklahoma Messages Project website.
Published May 10, 2017
By Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker
In Oklahoma, we have a crisis within our judicial and prison system. Oklahoma is the female-incarceration capital of the country, with twice as many imprisoned as other states. Native women represent 13 percent of the prison population, and across the country, the incarceration rate of Indian women is 38 percent higher than the national average.
Sadly, here in Oklahoma the majority of women are in jail for nonviolent drug crimes. This alarming number of imprisoned women means thousands of Oklahoma children are without their mothers. To keep families better connected and healthier, Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses have collaborated with the Oklahoma Messages Project, a nonprofit that serves the vulnerable children of the incarcerated.
The Oklahoma Messages Project is making a difference in the lives of innocent kids. Our financial support allows the organization to film parents in prison reading books to their children. During Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, parents read books to their children and share personal messages. Children receive the videos, along with the book their parent read on tape, so families can share a moment and a book together.
Principal Chief Bill John Baker
I am proud of this effort because it is improving relationships, boosting literacy and building self-esteem for both ends of the family unit: parent and child. A loving message and story time with Mom or Dad remind kids they are loved. Obviously, with a parent away, kids are more vulnerable to substance abuse and academic failure. We are able to help break a spiraling cycle through this effective prevention and literacy program that makes a positive difference in kids’ lives. Without intervention and prevention programs, children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to become inmates themselves.
Another Cherokee Nation partner, New Hope Oklahoma, also serves children with parents in prison. New Hope programs include summer camps, after-school programs, weekend retreats, family gatherings and case management tools. CNB partners with multiple nonprofit agencies that share a common goal of helping Oklahoma women and their families with the struggle and effects of addiction, as well as criminal justice system challenges.
We can and we must do better for our citizens in Oklahoma. We must improve the processes and make the conditions better so that women are not saddled with unfair and long-term prison sentences, which create depression, anger and anxiety. That means better education opportunities, better mental health services and more chances for economic security with access to health insurance.
Cherokee Nation also has an award-winning reintegration program called Coming Home. The program helps former prisoners get back on their feet upon release, including help with jobs and housing. It is one of the most progressive reintegration programs not only in Oklahoma, but across Indian Country.
We cannot just give up on people and families because of incarceration. Children especially need the nurturing and stability programs that Oklahoma Messages Project and New Hope Oklahoma work to provide each and every day.
All these partners and organizations share a common goal: make kids a priority and ensure they are not forgotten within this crisis. We cannot expect children to rise above the hardships of their parents’ mistakes if we, as a community, do not lend them the tools and support necessary to do so.
Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.