According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Oklahoma imprisons 151 out of every 100,000 women—more than double the national rate. If Oklahoma were its own nation, we would lead the entire world in imprisoning women.
Too often, judges hand down harsher punishments for women than for men convicted of the same crime. In a committed relationship, a woman will often take the blame in a drug possession conviction for her boyfriend or husband. In domestic violence cases, often a woman—herself the victim of the violence—will be imprisoned and her children taken from her, for, “failing to protect.” All of this adds up to the creation of places like Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, an all-female prison in McLeod, OK which houses 1,139 minimum and medium security inmates.
Prison: Stories and Statistics
When I hear stories and statistics like these and I can’t help but feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. We didn’t get here overnight; these numbers have been climbing for the past 25 years. Last year, voters passed reforms that make possession of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor. That has helped, but it is not nearly enough. We keep expecting state lawmakers to pass meaningful changes, and it seems we take one step forward and two steps back.
I keep asking myself: I’m just one person. What can I do?
Ellen Stackable is an Oklahoma teacher, and saw a way to put her skills to work, teaching women in prison. Her nonprofit, Poetic Justice helps incarcerated women express their feelings and ideas through poetry and helps them to build communication skills needed to lead restored, meaningful lives.
In June, All Souls Criminal Justice Outreach team hosted a film screening of the documentary Grey Matter. Created in part by Ellen’s son Will Stackable, the short film explores the impact of female incarceration in Oklahoma through statistics and interviews with legislators, incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated women, and volunteers within the prison system. Will and the storytellers at Scissortail Media used their skills and talents to create this film and share it, so that more people would be aware of the issues Oklahoma faces.
Make a move
After the film, the audience had many questions, but almost all of them came back to this one central cry for hope: What can I do?
On June 26, and again in November, Oklahoma voters will elect judges, district attorneys, and state legislators.
Here are a six ways you can make an informed decision.
- Educate yourself when and where to vote.
- Research candidates’ positions on criminal justice.
- Ask district attorney candidates if they are seeking election to be, “tough on crime” or if they have a desire to lessen outdated punishments for drug possession and reduce the population of our jails and prisons.
- Ask state legislative candidates what they will do to reduce the rate of female incarceration.
- Ask if they will support increased funding for education, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, domestic violence prevention, and mental health programs so that families are more stable and healthy.
- Find out what stocks are in your retirement and investment funds and divest of private prison companies such as U.S.: Corrections Corp. of America (NYSE:CXW) and GEO Group (NYSE:GEO).
If you would like to support Poetic Justice and their mission of bringing education of poetry and literature to prisons, you can donate, sign up to volunteer, or purchase a book of poetry on their website, poeticjustice.org. If you would like to learn more about female incarceration in Oklahoma, please read The Frontier newspaper. While you’re at it, consider buying a subscription so that they can continue their work.
The All Souls Criminal Justice Outreach team meets on the first Wednesday of every month, at 5:30 p.m. in room 128 at All Souls. All Souls CJO seeks to care for those impacted by incarceration, to educate the community about criminal justice issues, and cultivate equitable reforms in Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice System. Please reach out via email or join our Facebook group if you’d like to join CJO or have questions.
Carlos Moreno is the co-chair of All Souls Criminal Justice Outreach and is an advocate for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma.
Cover photo courtesy of Grey Matter