Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Complicated Truth about Why So Many Women Go to Prison in Oklahoma

by Nomad

Photographer: Yousef Khanfar

Women Behind Bars

In the Sooner state, if you are a woman-especially if you are not wealthy- your statistical chance of ending up behind bars is far higher than in any state in the union.

In Oklahoma, 151 out of every 100000 women are in prison and that's twice the national average. In fact, according to a 2013 report, the state had the highest incarceration rate for women per capita in the world.

Are Oklahoma women more predisposed to crime for some reason? Are they just more inclined toward lawlessness than ladies in other parts of the country?

This is not a problem that suddenly surfaced. It's been around for over a generation and it has, in the last few years, reached epidemic proportions.

For over 25 years, Oklahoma has led the nation in the rate at which it sends women to prison. Roughly 151 of every 100,000 Oklahoma women are behind bars — twice the national average.
In 2011, when Governor Mary Fallin signed into law a prison reform bill, she noted that
“More than half of our inmates in our system are not there because they are violent or they’re evil.They are there because they have a substance abuse issue.”
Experts concur with that assessment. Women, says Susan Sharp, a national expert on female incarceration and a professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma, are "collateral damage in the war on drugs."

Her research also shows there's a class factor as well. Poor women in rural areas receive longer sentences, while those who can afford private attorneys get less time for the same crimes.

Drugs and drug-related crimes, even simple possession, are some of the top reasons women enter the state's criminal justice system.

That's no accident. It's policy. Check out the graph. Since the 2011 legislation, the incarceration rate has soared even higher.

Why? Well, like any love-hate relationship, it's complicated.
The PRI article provides an a part of the answer:
While other conservative states have reduced sentences for drug crimes, Oklahoma has headed in the opposite direction. Judges and prosecutors haven't reformed the number of sentences for women. Some have increased women's sentences for drug crimes over the last decade. 
Sharp said:
“There are some counties that are extremely harsh, that almost anyone convicted will go to prison. The district attorney is the most powerful player in the courtroom. ... And if they are trying to build a reputation of being tough on crime, they're basically going for the low-hanging fruit.”
On one side we have conservative district attorneys who rally around "Get-tough on crime" policies at a local level while at the next level, we have agency heads and governors joining reform advocates all of whom who appear to know what the root cause of the problem is.
Liberal critics could point to Oklahoma and declare that, because of its irrational adherence to conservative policies, the state has all the marking of Third World failure.

The Corporate Factor

But there's another easily-overlooked factor in the equation: the state's dependence on private prisons.

In 2014, Huffington Post reported that private corrections and their supporters in Oklahoma were handing out a lot of campaign donations in local politics.
Three private corrections companies with operations in the state — Corrections Corporation of America, The Geo Group, Inc. and Avalon Correctional Services Inc. — are the primary donors to political campaigns in Oklahoma.
And in that same year, two out-of-state private prison companies received a record $92.7 million from the state Corrections Department for housing Oklahoma inmates.
Since 2004, Oklahoman tax-payers have footed the bill for about
$975 million on contracts with the two for-profit corrections enterprises operating in the state.

According to Department of Corrections executive director Joe Allbaugh, spending trends suggest that number will continue to climb. Allbaugh said
“Given the current prison population, I don't see any long-term scenario where we won't rely on private prisons.
Earlier this summer, according to TulsaWorld, Allbaugh warned that the state’s prisons were so crowded and understaffed that “something is going to pop.” He has said three new prisons and $700 million more in operating funds are needed, at a total cost of $2.8 billion.
He joined with the governor in demanding a re-evaluation of criminal justice system in order to reduce the prison population -without affecting public safety.

It was a stark choice between even more money being spent on prisons or facing up to the challenge of reform, against the pressure of corporate interests. Which would benefit the state more, the construction of more facilities or public funding that could be used for treatment programs in rural community? 

In a solid red-state like Oklahoma, the answers to those questions very much depends on how committed one is to conservative policies of the past. Policies that have clearly fallen short in other states and have cleaned the states' budgets.

Citing the success of other states, Governor Fallin seems to have seen the light. 
“Many states have shown that it’s possible to reduce imprisonment while also reducing crime. By ensuring expensive prison beds are used for serious, violent offenders and reinvesting savings into programs that cut crime and recidivism, these states are getting a better public safety return on their corrections spending.”
DOC director Allbaugh has also come out championing a serious re-think of Oklahoma's justice system. 
"There is this belief that we ought to lock them up and throw away the key. And it doesn't work....Unless we adopt some serious criminal justice reforms, this is just going to continue on the wrong path."
Allbaugh, a man we have seen in other NP posts, is certainly no angel but he seems to be on the right track in this situation.

Referendums and Reversals

It is no surprise that the levels of incarcerated women are not coming down. Poor women in rural Oklahoma with drug abuse problems would be one of the most vulnerable demographics. Right up there with urban African Americans.
In terms of political representation, this group doesn't stand much of chance against ambitious DAs and corporate interests in a place like Oklahoma.

However, it isn't all bad news in the OK state. There's been a significant decline in the number of reported meth labs over the past five years. Those numbers are the lowest that Oklahoma has seen in several years.
In any case, in theory, this should drive down meth abuse in the state which will presumably affect incarceration rates overall in the long term. One problem: this decrease has not been uniformly statewide. In the eastern areas, there's been no appreciable change in the meth situation. It is very much like Meth version of Whac-A-Mole.

But there was good news from an unexpected source.
Eventually the Oklahoma voters grew restless for some kind of meaningful legislative reform. Advocates for reform took their case before the people and allowed them to decide for themselves. Last year, a referendum made drug possession a misdemeanor. Slate reported:
In one of the most conservative states in the country, voters approved two referendums to make low-level drug and property crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies and to use the subsequent cost savings to fund rehabilitation programs.
Shockingly, lawmakers attempted to reverse that choice by voters.
Legislators filed seven bills that would significantly change the language adopted by voters in State Questions 780 and 781.
Those anti-reform bills were backed by the powerful Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, and most of the DAs in the state have criticized or opposed the referendum. The Slate article quotes a former Republican speaker of the State House:
“The district attorneys who opposed our reforms are very influential within the state legislature.They are good at scaring and pressuring and manipulating lawmakers into passing policies that ultimately benefit their position.”
By April of this year, the bill that would have reinstated felony drug possession crimes in Oklahoma- countermanding the referendum was pulled and the people's decision appears to have won out. On July 1, the reforms- as dictated by the public vote- went into effect. 
Said one state legislator, Rep. Tim Downing, R-Purcel:
“The will of the people in passing those state questions last November stands."
What all this legislative wrangling, and scaremongering means to poor women in prison (and their families) across the state remains to be seen. Time will show and for those women, time passes with extreme slowness.

Here are two personal stories from women who have been through the prison system. Each story is unique and each story has its tragic similarities.

First, let's meet Robyn Allen and her mother. Allen received a 20-year sentence for trafficking in illegal drugs. She says she sold methamphetamine to support her family after a back injury left her without work. However, that's really a small part of the problem.

Here's Aliya's story. She was shown how to use meth by her own father.