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The disgrace of Oklahoma's female incarceration rate
The Kate Barnard Center located in Oklahoma City houses female inmates.
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NORMAN, Okla.- Depending on where you look, the United States remains the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.  One study names Seychelles, a group of African islands that are home to just 90,000 people, and whose jails are filled with Somali pirates, as having the highest rate, but it’s really not comparable.  The U.S. rate, at around 700 per 100,000 citizens, is absurdly high compared to every other modern, and not so modern, nation.  China, by comparison, incarcerates around 118 per 100,000.  Russia’s rate is 427 per 100,000 citizens.  Supposed enemy of Western “freedom”, Iran, incarcerates 287 per 100,000 of its citizens.

According to World Prison Brief, the current U.S. prison population sits at 2,145,100, also the highest total in the world, surpassing countries with far larger populations, such as China and India.  Comparing the rates among the founding members of NATO draws an even more striking contrast.  France’s rate of incarceration is 103 per 100,000; the United Kingdom’s is 146; Italy’s is 94; Canada’s is 114.  There is clearly something wrong with in the "Land of the Free."

Within the United States, the state with the highest incarceration rate is Louisiana, dubbed the prison capital of the world, which imprisons around 816 per 100,000 citizens. 

Coming in at a close second is Oklahoma, which imprisons just over 700 per 100,000 residents. The state also recently hit a dark milestone of 63,009 within the DOC population for the first time in its history. 

Unique among the states is that Oklahoma has over double the national rate of incarcerated women.  In 2015, 151 out of every 100,000 women were incarcerated in Oklahoma, compared to the national average of 63 per 100,000.  According to the Department of Corrections, the number of female incarcerated rose by 9.5 percent during fiscal year 2016. 

Black women, in particular, are at a greater risk of ending up in the DOC population than others, based on the fact that, while they make up 7.7 percent of the total state population, they account for 20 percent of the female prison population.  Oklahoma incarcerates blacks at a higher rate than any other state in the nation.  Native American women experience a similarly disproportionate risk of imprisonment: they account for 13 percent of the female prison population, while Native Americans of both genders make up only 9 percent of the total state population.

What explains such an abnormally high rate?  One answer lies in the War on Drugs, and how Oklahoma prosecutes non-violent criminal activity.  Over 50 percent of 1,152 women entering the DOC population in 2013 were arrested for a drug crime.  Another is the fact that Oklahoma consistently ranks in the bottom 16 of states for women’s health, as well as in the bottom 10 for economic security and mobility.  Oklahoma ranked 46th in poor health behaviors and outcomes for all citizens in a report released last year.  Women get caught in a cycle of poverty, violence, and crime, and have no lifeline to help them escape.

Abnormally punitive sentencing means Oklahoma’s female inmates are more likely to serve unnecessarily long sentences for nonviolent offenses when they could be rehabilitated instead.  But imprisoning women means imprisoning mothers, and 85 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated females have children left behind.  Around 4,600 minor children have an incarcerated mother on a daily basis in the state, which leads to failing grades, depression, and eventually, criminal behavior followed by prison stints, just like their mothers.  This generational incarceration is something that advocates of reform hope to put an end to.

Reform appears to be slowly gaining speed.  With the passage of both State Questions 780 and 781, the first of which lowers simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, and raised felony grand larceny from $500 to $1000.  SQ 781 will use the money saved from the reform begun by 780 to fund rehabilitation programs in various counties. 

On August 29th, the Oklahoma City council joined in an agreement between Oklahoma County, Edmond and Midwest City to create the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council that would directly confront the problem of the county’s overcrowded jails.

This is all well and good, but any reform effort that does not seriously rethink the wisdom of imprisoning people for crimes in which no victim can be identified, or that does not recognize that policy-induced black markets create vast chasms in the society into which the most at-risk almost inevitably tumble into, will be nothing more than cosmetic change, and the lives lost to Oklahoma’s prison system will not be positively affected in any significant way.  

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Shane Smith

Shane Smith is an accountant and freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in economics from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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