Alma Steele works on a needle point project at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center Dec. 1, 2010.
Alma Steele works on a needle point project at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center Dec. 1, 2010. Credit: Mike Simons / Tulsa World

In 1908, Kate Barnard, Oklahoma’s feisty first commissioner of charities and corrections, traveled to Kansas to investigate the alleged torture and mistreatment of Oklahoma prisoners. Oklahoma federal prisoners—and Oklahoma Territory’s felons before them—were incarcerated in the the state prison in Lansing, Kan., because the new state had no prison.

Barnard, elected to her state post before women had the right to vote, had been instrumental in lobbying the first legislature to adopt prison laws that were then among the most progressive in the nation. “In Oklahoma,” she had said, “we would do differently.”

When Barnard eventually had the Lansing prisoners brought back to Oklahoma in 1909, 16 women were among them.

It’s ironic that the state history of Oklahoma’s female prisoners begins with a reproach to the Kansas penal system. Though corrections officials say that rates of crimes and convictions by women in both states are comparable, today Oklahoma women end up in prison approximately three times as often as women in Kansas.

And while Kansas lawmakers are earning accolades for prison reforms that have reduced prison populations by creating alternatives for some offenders, in Oklahoma, the number of incarcerated women is at a historic high.

The ‘hockey stick’

Mike Connelly

, head of the evaluation and analysis unit at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, calls it “the hockey-stick look.” That’s the shape that a graph charting the number of women in the state’s prison over the decades takes, with a long, stable line that suddenly takes a swooping upward turn in the early 1980s.

How sharp? From 1910 to 1980, women made up an average of 3.5 percent of the state’s prison population. By 2010, that percentage was nearly 11 percent, and the population had climbed to 2,760.

The “hockey-stick” pattern is not unique to Oklahoma’s female prison population, or to the state. Between 1987 and 2007, the number of prisoners in the U.S. nearly tripled; in 2008, there were more than 2.3 million adults in prison, more by sheer number, as well as per capita rate, than any country in the world.

The same factors that criminologists point to as having contributed to the growth in prison populations are present in Oklahoma: decades of “tough on crime,” politics, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the war on drugs and a federally financed prison construction boom.

What the graphs don’t explain, however, is why those factors have operated so severely on women. The nation’s female prison population grew by 832 percent between 1997 and 2007, while the male population grew only half as much. Nor do they explain why Oklahoma women, in particular, are so much more likely to go to prison. In 2004, the state imprisoned more than 10 times as many women per capita as Massachusetts or Rhode Island.


That Oklahoma puts more women in prison than any other place on the globe may shock some, but isn’t anything new, said Susan Sharp, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Oklahoma. Nationally, Oklahoma has held that top ranking for 14 of the last 15 years.

Sharp says the imprisonment of women is due in part to the state’s culture and history, including a wide conservative streak that favors retributive justice.

“We are just harsher,” she said.

Others contend that Oklahoma doesn’t have the penal system that it wants, but has been stuck with one that has proved, for reasons of politics, to be nearly impervious to meaningful reform. In their view, the root cause for the high rates of female incarceration can be found in the criminal code, particularly its severity toward drug offenders.

Laura Pitman, the DOC’s deputy director of female offender operations, considers the high incarceration rate as a public health problem masquerading solely as a crime problem, because about 40 percent of Oklahoma’s female prison population is locked up for drug-related crimes.

Improving access to drug treatment and creating more alternatives to prison for offenders with substance abuse problems, advocates argue, would not only reduce recidivism rates for offenders, but would better serve the community now and in the future.


Although Kate Barnard had fought to create prisons that were more about reforming than punishing prisoners — included establishing a reformatory in Granite—civic zeal for rehabilitation began to cool after 1914, when Barnard left office.

By the late 1930’s, Oklahoma already stood out among states as a place where lawbreakers, both men and women, were likely to go to jail and stay for a long time. In 1939, a state panel funded by New Deal-era federal legislation reported Oklahoma’s incarceration rate had doubled since 1920. In addition to overcrowding, “Oklahoma’s prison methods are antiquated,” the panel charged.

Seven decades later, when the Women’s Prison Association reported on three decades of growth in the incarceration of women in the U.S., it cited Oklahoma’s high rate of incarceration as a prime example of the “tremendous” degree of variation among states. “Unless we are to believe that Oklahoma women are more than 10 times more “criminal” than their Massachusetts and Rhode Island counterparts,” the report said, “we have to assume that criminal justice policy and practice are pivotal.”

But, in fact, one argument Sharp has heard over the years is that Oklahoma’s women prisoners are especially hard cases.

In 1996 when Sharp was interviewing at the University of Oklahoma, a department head – since retired — picked her up at the airport and drove her by the Mabel Basset Correctional Center, then in Oklahoma City, on the way to the Norman campus.

“He very proudly told me that Oklahoma had the highest female incarceration rate in the nation,” Sharp recalled. “And when I asked him why, he said ‘Oklahoma has mean women.’”

Since then, Sharp said she has thought a lot about the relationship between Oklahoma’s culture and its approach to crime and punishment.

Her theory is that instead of just one type of conservatism, here there are three. ”You have the Deep South, Bible-belt fundamentalist, Old Testament harshness,” she said. “You also have the Wild West hang-them-high mentality. And then there’s the traditional Midwest conservatism. I think it just kind of coalesces into something unique in this state.”

A religiously fundamentalist viewpoint prescribes a model of “ideal womanhood.” Sharp said. There is a very negative response to women who use drugs, she said, “because they are the exact opposite of ideal womanhood.”Jessica Carriger, an assistant district attorney in District 12, based in Mayes County, has seen firsthand how women, specifically mothers, are judged more harshly than men for the same crimes.

If a husband and wife are both arrested on charges of manufacturing methamphetamine in a home where there is a child present, the general reaction of juries is “How could the mother do that?’ ” said Carriger. “Not to say that they don’t hold the fathers accountable, but it seems more reprehensible in the minds for jurors” in the case of the female defendant.

However, Carriger asserts, the law—as practiced in Mayes County courtrooms—is gender-blind. A criminal charge is a criminal charge, whether a woman is reviled as a drug addict or evokes sympathy because she is the mother of small children, she said.


Some charge that it is the criminal code—including changes made over the last two decades as a result of the national War on Drugs—that ultimately is driving the female incarceration rate.

“Most of what has happened in the growth of women’s imprisonment [nationally] is around the drug war, Woodward native Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii and one of the nation’s foremost experts on women and crime, said. “When you start rewriting your laws so that you criminalize women who have relationships with people who are drug dealers, or when you just ratchet up sentences dramatically for very small amounts of illicit substances,” huge increases in prison populations are the result.

The high rates of incarceration won’t change in the state without changing the criminal code, said Bob A. Ravitz, the Oklahoma County chief public defender. Ravitz describes the state’s criminal code as broken, even barbaric, as compared with other states.

Consequences for repeat offenders are much harsher here, and Oklahoma women end up serving far longer sentences—decades longer, in some cases—for the same crimes their counterparts in other states commit, he said.

In Oklahoma, a woman convicted of a drug charge might receive a 10-year suspended sentence, in lieu of prison, and be ordered to report to drug court, Ravitz said. But if she fails and begins to use drugs again—and addicts tend to fail in attempts at sobriety—Oklahoma allows an individual to be sent back to serve time up to the original prison sentence, he said.

Other states will cap time served at six months or two years, if an offender does not commit a new crime, he said.

Oklahoma’s lawmakers worked to change the state’s criminal code in the 90s, with “Truth in Sentencing” legislation that created a matrix of four categories of crimes – violent, sex, drugs, and other. For some offenses, such as non-violent drug offenses, sentences could be shorter. But those convicted of 11 types of crimes—termed “deadly sins,” and including rape, murder and drug trafficking—would serve out 85 percent of their sentences.

The political landscape changed after Lamonte Fields, a first-time non-violent adult offender, killed three people on an early release program for non-violent offenders. Fields’ extensive juvenile record included violence, Connelly said.

After that, few policymakers were willing to endorse shorter sentences for some offenders, he said. The legislation was repealed in 1999 as it was set to take effect.

Prosecutors, however, disagree that it is easy to go to prison in Oklahoma.

Many defendants work hard to get there, said Ray Don Jackson, a former district attorney and district judge in Woodward County. Crime statistics often don’t tell the whole story of why inmates are doing time, since an inmate may have committed violent crimes, but could be serving a sentence for a non-violent charge, he said.

Jackson also disputes that drug-related crimes most often only affect the offender, since some are associated with violent crimes and property crimes.

“Life brings us circumstances. At some point, we make choices,” Carriger said.

Most people believe that the women who are locked up in Oklahoma’s prisons are “average people with average advantages, who choose to be bad,” Pitman said.

But research has shown that the road to prison doesn’t start in adulthood.

“It begins in childhood,” Pitman said. The reality “for incarcerated women—and certainly women incarcerated in our state—is that most have a history of family dysfunction and instability.”

According to the 2010 report from Pitman’s female offender division, nearly half of the women incarcerated in Oklahoma’s prison report they grew up with mental illness in the home and 66 percent report childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. More than half of the women ran away from home before they reached the age of 18.

“These aren’t women who would scare you,” said Chesney-Lind about female offenders. In most cases, “they have very, very sad stories.”

Pitman also cites the effect of the nation’s war on drugs, as well as the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1980s, when all but 40,000 of a half-million inpatient psychiatric treatment beds disappeared.

At a time when DOC has more and more people in need of mental health and substance abuse treatment, the budget dollars are drying up, Pitman said.All of these arguments end up at the same place. The costs of keeping the state’s prison population—including record numbers of female offenders—have become too high for the state to bear.

Oklahoma, which spent 8.0 percent of state appropriations on corrections in FY2010, ranked in the top 10 states in the percentage of correctional spending in a 2008 study.

But at even at that high rate, citizens are not getting their money’s worth, correctional officials suggest.

“A prison cell does not equal public safety,” said Pitman.

It’s the most expensive form of public safety, and it ends the moment a person leaves prison, she said. And because of economics, “I think more people are willing to listen to solutions that would have been good solutions at any time,” she said.

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