5 facts about Oklahoma's female prisoner problem
You might have heard that Oklahoma has a pretty big problem: its female prisoner population.
But what does that mean exactly?
Here are 5 facts you should know about Oklahoma's female prisoner problem.
No. 5 - Numbers don't lie
TheNation.com recently took a look at the problem with Oklahoma's female incarceration rate and noted that our state is, essentially, the "country’s capital of female incarceration, with 127 of every 100,000 women behind bars, double the national rate."
No. 4 - But why?
Susan Sharp, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the author of "Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners," told TheNation the reason for such a high incarceration rate of women is due to how Oklahoma charges criminals:
rug possession and drug trafficking are the top two reasons for the ballooning women’s prison population. And indeed, of the 1,152 women entering Oklahoma’s prison system in 2013, 52.6 percent were arrested for a drug offense, with 26.2 percent ultimately sentenced for possession and 16.6 percent for distribution. Keep in mind that Oklahoma often ratchets up the charges by counting possessing, distributing, transporting or manufacturing a certain quantity of drugs as trafficking. “Five grams of crack or twenty grams of meth can be charged as a trafficking act,” Sharp explained.
Moreover, sentencing is more severe in Oklahoma than elsewhere. Compare the state’s mean sentence for “drug trafficking” to the country’s mean sentence for the same crime: In Oklahoma, the average penalty is 1o.3 years, while the country’s is 6 years.
No. 3 - Lack of social services
Oklahoma doesn't rank high on the list when it comes to things like access to medical insurance and education for women:
In addition, conditions in Oklahoma often push women down the path toward prison. Oklahoma ranks among the bottom 16 states for women’s mental health, meaning that Oklahoma women report experiencing poor mental-health conditions, including stress, depression and eating disorders, at a higher average than in many other states. In 2015, it ranked among the bottom 10 states for women’s economic security and access to health insurance and higher education.
And, women of color make up a bulk of those in prison despite being a small part of the state's population:
In a state where black people make up only 7.7 percent of the entire population, nearly 20 percent of the women’s prison population is African-American; Native American women are 13 percent of the prison population, but Native people of all genders are only 9 percent of the state population.
No. 2 - Rape rate
The Mabel Bassett Correctional Center is one of three female prisons in Oklahoma, and last year a federal report about the prison revealed something shocking and sad: incidents of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence were double the national average.
The 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found 15.3 percent of the inmates surveyed at the female facility reported some form of sexual abuse or rape from another inmate. This rate was highest in the nation for female institutions. The study was done as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 federal law aimed at identifying the causes of sexual victimization in prisons and the types of inmates who are most vulnerable.
No. 1 - The state knows it needs to be better
County drug courts are being used to combat the high incarceration rate, but sometimes those do more harm than good if a person fails to adhere to the stipulations:
Failing to complete the stipulations of the drug court can lead to prison, sometimes for a lengthier sentence than if a person had initially pled guilty. Oklahoma has a 42 percent rate of drug-court failure, Sharp noted in her book. In an interview with The Nation, she added that the average sentence for failure is 74 months. Most of these failures, she points out, are for flunking a urine test or not paying court-imposed fines. It’s an “alternative,” in other words, that is also a pathway to prison.
Recently the state took a stab at reducing sentence lengths for third-time drug offenders. But, the bill signed into law in May is not retroactive, which leaves 55 women in Oklahoma prison with life sentences.