Oklahoma has “mean” laws, provides little help to addicts and the mentally ill and is full of tough-on-crime politicians who are not concerned with rehabilitating criminals, an OU sociologist said Wednesday during a forum on female incarceration.
In recent years, Oklahoma has held the distinction as the state that locks up women at the highest rate in the nation.
Susan Sharp, a University of Oklahoma sociology professor who has been studying the state's high rate of female incarceration since the 1990s, was highly critical of Oklahoma's drug laws, calling them “mean” and overly punitive. She said the state's tough-on-crime sentencing guidelines are to blame for nearly all of the women serving lengthy terms in state prison.
Sharp said women usually end up in prison due to three factors: Coming from a poverty-stricken background, being in relationships with men who engage in criminal behavior and suffering from a long history of abuse.
“We've ignored these families for generations,” Sharp said.
As girls growing up in these environments become women, they usually fall into a criminal lifestyle due to one of the three “pathways,” Sharp said.
Sharp said too many women are being sentenced to lengthy prison terms for having quantities of drugs that would bring little to no punishment in other states.
She also spoke out against drug traffickers being forced to serve 85 percent of their sentences when drug rehabilitation would do more good at a lower cost to the state.
“It's the way we define drug trafficking (in Oklahoma) ... if you're arrested with five grams of crack cocaine, you can be charged with trafficking,” Sharp said.
“So they have this long sentence and they have to serve 85 percent before they start accruing earned credits.”
Yousef Khanfar, an award-winning photographer who has spent years photographing and interviewing women in Oklahoma's prison system, also commented on the state's tough sentencing laws following Sharp's comments.
“In Chicago or other places, if they found you had five (grams of crack cocaine), they would flush it down the toilet,” Khanfar said. “Not here, they give you 25 years in prison for trafficking.
“If you put somebody in prison for 25 years, that's $2 (million) or $3 million. If you put them in rehab for a year, it's like $50,000.”
Khanfar said he's photographed a mother and daughter who shared a cell in an Oklahoma prison, but noted that not all women doing time in the state's prison come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
He said after working with one female inmate, he received an invitation for tea at the home of the woman's mother.
“They lived in a $6 million house,” Khanfar said. “Her room was like Disney World ... you could tell she had too much.”
Sharp said Oklahoma doesn't invest enough money in mental health facilities and drug treatment programs and also criticized the state's participation in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
In particular, Sharp seemed appalled at a new Justice Reinvestment Initiative program that sends men and women on parole back to prison for the slightest infraction. Even missing an appointment or failing to pay a monthly fine.
“We have set up debtors' prisons in Oklahoma,” she said.
Sharp and Khanfar spoke in front of a packed room at the United Way of Central Oklahoma's headquarters. The forum, the second one of its kind, was hosted by the Oklahoma Women's Coalition.
Oklahoma leads the nation
According to the state Corrections Department's latest annual report, Oklahoma locks up 128 out of every 100,000 women, nearly twice the national average.
At the end of the last fiscal year, there were roughly 2,600 women incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons, a figure that has remained relatively flat since 2005, Corrections Department records show.
Jane Nelson, chair of the Oklahoma Women's Coalition, said Oklahoma is “routinely ranked as one of the worst states for women to live,” and that her organization is seeking to change that through education and advocacy.
Nelson said an untold number of women are languishing in state prisons when they could be rehabilitated in other ways. At Wednesday's forum, it was revealed that 85 percent of the women in Oklahoma prisons are mothers.
“We hope to see legislation enacted in the next legislative session that will find alternatives to prison for women convicted of nonviolent offenses,” Nelson said. “Too many women are going to prison, destroying their families, because of addictions.”