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Reform for Oklahoma’s Prison System

The state of Oklahoma is known for many things––the Oklahoma City Thunder, red dirt roads, the Sooner and Cowboy rivalry, the historical Land Rush––but perhaps the worst, along with the state’s rocky history with Native American peoples, is its monumentally high female incarceration rate.

Oklahoma currently holds the No. 1 spot for female incarceration in the country. Approximately 151 of every 100,000 women in the state of Oklahoma are in prison, which is twice the national average. The majority of these women are serving sentences for drug sale and use.

While drug-related crimes are undoubtedly cause for arrest and imprisonment, questions are arising about the length of these women’s sentences. Robyn Allen, 52, is just one of the many women facing a sentence two times longer than the state average. Allen will be serving 20 years for possession of methamphetamines.

Across the U.S., many states have begun reducing sentences for nonviolent, drug-related crimes, but Oklahoma has maintained a “tough on crime” approach. Rather than reducing sentences for these types of crimes, Oklahoma has increased them in certain cases.

Prisons within the state are already at capacity, with some perhaps overflowing. Researchers speculate the state’s prison system will indefinitely grow by 60 percent in the next decade if reform is not enacted.

Besides widespread drug convictions, further research points to poverty as the root cause of Oklahoma’s high female incarceration rate.

Susan Sharp, an expert on female incarceration and a professor at the University of Oklahoma, discovered poor women in rural areas of the state largely receive longer sentences than those who can afford private attorneys.

Poor women with little to no income and large families to provide for essentially have become collateral damage in the “war against drugs.”

Not only so, but when a woman is sent to prison, especially more than once, there is a high probability a domino effect will follow her family.

“You can sometimes find…three generations of a family incarcerated at the same time,” Sharp said. “For example, a mother, a grandmother, the daughter.”

The director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Joe Allbaugh, said judges are figures in a vicious cycle involving these women, but those involved in the cycle continue to grow larger in number.

“Judges say, ‘You know, you’ve been before me five times, Suzy Jones, and there won’t be a sixth time. I’m going to send you to prison so you can get some help,’” Allbaugh said. “Practically, there is no help in prison. We are very limited in our programs, and there just is the belief that we ought to ‘lock them up, throw away the key.’ And it doesn’t work.”

According to Allbaugh, the solution to the state’s growing incarceration rate is to invest more in treatment than prison. Ninety-four percent  of Oklahoma’s prison population will return to society, and the sad reality for many of those released is the glaring statistic saying they will most likely end back up in prison.

Prison may be a reasonable short-term plan for drug dealers and users in Oklahoma, but what about long-term? If the numbers are correct and 94 percent of the prison population will become part of society once again, wouldn’t we want to help create better neighbors and citizens?

While recovery programs are indeed a solid solution to Oklahoma’s problem, lack of funding often prevents programs from being created. Tulsa County is one exception.

The rate for sending women to prison has slowly decreased in Tulsa County due to the help of a program funded by George Kaiser, an oil billionaire. The program focuses on sending women to treatment rather than prison. This, in turn, not only helps moderate the prison system but also provides aid to women to help prepare them for life after treatment.

Legislation has attempted to reform Oklahoma’s prison system, but there is still work to be done. Funding is just one obstacle legislators will have to overcome to create a better tomorrow for Oklahoma. But this is clear: we need change.

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