Analysis Human Rights

‘The Population Is Not Getting Smaller’: Women Behind Bars Aren’t Seeing Effects of Oklahoma Prison Reform

Victoria Law

Should legislators not take measures to curb the number of people sent to prison, Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said, Oklahoma will see a 25 percent increase in its prison population over the next ten years.

“Oklahoma, unfortunately, has the dubious honor of having the highest incarceration rate of women in the nation,” stated Gov. Mary Fallin (R) last Tuesday. “That is not something I’m proud of.”

Fallin was the keynote speaker for #WomenUnshackled, a day-long forum about women’s incarceration bringing together legislators, advocates, and a handful of formerly incarcerated women to offer federal and state policy recommendations on the challenges faced by women behind bars.

Although Fallin said last week that legislators and policymakers are taking steps to address the exploding prison population in the state, many of the women who live day-to-day in Oklahoma’s overcrowded prison system have yet to see the effects of any of these reforms.

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Fallin noted that, of the nearly 3,000 women in Oklahoma state prisons, 83 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, and nearly half for drug-related offenses. With that in mind, she said, some parts of Oklahoma have implemented services for pregnant and parenting women with substance dependency issues, including substance abuse treatment programs specifically for women with minor children. She pointed to a Department of Corrections-run diversion program for women facing nonviolent charges in Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties, as well as Women in Recovery, a non-governmental alternative-to-incarceration program for women facing lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent, drug-related offenses.

These programs, she said, help “women become productive, tax-paying citizens.” In addition, she pointed out, it costs the state about $30,000 to incarcerate a woman for one year. “It costs much less to put them in an alternative-to-incarceration program,” she added, though she was not specific about those costs.

Should legislators not take measures to curb the number of people sent to prison, Fallin said, Oklahoma will see a 25 percent increase in its prison population over the next ten years, which would necessitate building three new prisons at a cost of $2 billion.

Voters in Oklahoma aren’t happy with the high price tag of incarceration either. Two ballot initiatives to begin curbing the numbers of people sent to prison were passed in November, each gaining the approval of 57 percent of the state’s voters. One reduces simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The other increases the amount of a felony property crime from $500 to $1,000; if a property crime involves goods or property worth less than that, it will be a misdemeanor charge.

All of these alternatives are limited to people charged with or convicted of low-level nonviolent drug offenses. In other words, nearly half of the state’s prisoners (or 13,870 people) continue to face long prison sentences as well as lengthy, if not permanent, separation from their children and families.

Mary Fish knows these realities firsthand. She has been in and out of prison since 1979; her most recent incarceration began in 2002. During these past 15 years, she’s seen the exploding rates of women’s incarceration—and felt the effect as more and more women are packed into Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, a town that, in 2010, had 4,044 residents.

As of July 17, 1,310 women were packed into a prison built to house 1,275. And packed they are. Lines for meals and medications have become longer and longer. Day rooms, or large rooms where women gather to watch TV and socialize with one another, have been converted into dormitories.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC), overcrowding determines the decision to add bunks in some day rooms. In an email to Rewire, Mark Myers, the department’s director of communications, stated that the women who are moved to a day room bunk are those who have been released from the prison’s Secured Housing Unit for an infraction of the rules or are habitually in trouble.

However, placing women who are considered habitual troublemakers in the converted day rooms has reportedly not worked out very well. “A lot of the women are rebelling about the bunk beds in the day rooms by not obeying the rules at all,” Fish wrote to Rewire in June. “They even fight in front of the staff and officers. All day long, outburst, arguments, the smell of smoke and other illegal stuff.”

Fish herself was recently moved from a two-person cell into one of the day room-turned-dormitories, which she likens to living in a fishbowl. “There is no room for nothin’,” she described. Another woman, who remains in a two-person cell, is temporarily holding onto Fish’s belongings for her. “Because I have no room to put anything, I will have to smash stuff and throw stuff away,” Fish wrote.

Within the cramped quarters and lack of privacy, fights are common. Fish described being awakened the previous night by a “bam bam wham wham.” Two women were fighting because one would not let the other plug a fan into her surge protector.

For prison staff, it didn’t matter that Fish would turn 65 in September and that living in an open dormitory with tens of others, where fights erupt regularly, might be a hardship for an older woman. Instead, Fish surmised that her age, along with her record relatively free of recent rules violations (she was recently written up for failing to stand during a 10 p.m. headcount), made her an ideal candidate for the move. In other words, in contrast with the DOC’s reasoning, Fish thinks she was rewarded for staying out of trouble with losing her privacy.

Being surrounded by other women is just one new aspect of the fishbowl. A nearby cell has been converted into a bathroom; a shower curtain acts as a door. “You knock on the shower curtain and say, ‘Is anyone in there?’ and if no one answers, you just go on in and get coffee water, brush your teeth, wash out your clothing, towels, etc., and [do] #1 and #2,” Fish described.

That’s not the only indignity that women incarcerated in Oklahoma are now experiencing. Fish also reported a new practice in which women, regardless of whether they are in the fishbowl or an individual cell, are allotted only 15 sanitary napkins each month. “The girls are writing Joe Allbaugh [director of Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections] about it,” she said.

Myers confirmed that women are limited to 15 sanitary napkins per month, but noted that they can request more as needed. “Some inmates use the napkins for non-approved purposes, such as blocking door locking devices,” he explained. “This is a security issue and cost-effective measure.”

This move contrasts with recent legislation introduced on the federal level by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Corey Booker (D-NJ), who spoke just before Fallin at #WomenUnshackled. Among its provisions, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act ensures that women receive sufficient feminine hygiene products. But the act, if passed, only applies to women incarcerated in the federal system. There is one federal prison in Oklahoma, operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons. Women in state prisons, including Fish and 2,924 others, remain at the mercy of prison administrators seeking to keep costs down.

None of the reforms that Fallin touted address the issues now facing the women inside. They also do nothing to alleviate the current overcrowding by allowing women to go home earlier. In the fishbowl alone, Fish met two women who have earned enough “credits” through completing prison programming to be released early under the state’s sentencing calculations. Under DOC policy, once a woman completes a program, her case manager fills out the paperwork and sends it, along with the completed program certificate, to the facility records unit.

However, Fish reported, the policy isn’t always put into practice. She says she knows a woman who has been waiting for over two months for her case manager to put in the credits she has earned through participating in prison programs. Her credits make her eligible for a sentence reduction, meaning that she would be able to leave prison earlier without having to go through the parole process.

For some people, the credits matter less than the crime. Fish was sentenced to 40 years for assaulting a man who threatened her son in 2001. Fish was high on meth and other drugs at the time and, she says, might have “overreacted.” Fortunately, her sentencing judge was, in her words, “kind and merciful” and allowed her to become eligible for parole after serving only one-third (approximately 13 years) of that time. But under Oklahoma sentencing law, Mary Fish must serve at least 85 percent of her 8 1/2 year sentence for another assault, this time a fight with another woman. Inexplicably, the judge’s discretion did not carry over into this last sentence; Fish may have to spend another seven years behind bars.

In prison for more than 15 years, Mary has been sober and has done her best to turn her life around, including taking college courses and attending the prison’s many religious programs, but because of the sentencing law and the violent conviction, none of that may matter.

Given her lengthy history behind bars, Fish has ideas about how to address the state’s explosion in women’s incarceration. Some are different than the ones that Fallin put forth to fellow lawmakers in D.C.

In some of her previous writings, Fish has noted that studies have demonstrated the high cost of continuing to incarcerate aging people, many of whom pose little to no threat to public safety after years behind bars. She wrote, quoting the American Civil Liberties Union, “States can implement mechanisms to determine which aging prisoners pose little safety risk and can be released.” She pointed to the Project for Older Prisoners, started in 1989, in which law students from Washington, D.C.’s George Washington University Law School interview and evaluate prisoners over the age of 55 for risk of recidivism. If the risk is low, then the student helps them prepare a case for a parole hearing and helps locate housing and other re-entry support. The project covered five states—Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia—and the District of Columbia. Twelve years later, it had helped approximately 300 aging people who were released from prison without a single instance of recidivism.

Oklahoma has no such program to help people inside. And Mary Fish, and others like her, won’t find any sympathy from Mary Fallin. “We know that violent criminals who present a danger to society deserve to be in prison,” Fallin said in a video produced by the Justice Action Network, a co-organizer of the forum. “We aren’t looking for shortcuts to put them back on the street, and we certainly don’t want to return them back to the communities unsupervised.”

In person, Fallin reiterated that point before the many lawmakers, advocates, and formerly incarcerated women at #WomenUnshackled: “By assuring that expensive prison beds are used for those who are actually dangerous to keep locked up to protect ourselves and our individual families.” Fallin has the ultimate power to enforce this; as governor, she must approve parole for anyone convicted of a violent offense. In Oklahoma, that’s nearly half (or 48 percent) of the total prison population, including Fish.

Writing from her new bed in the day room-turned-dormitory, Fish noted, “The population is not getting smaller, not by what I can tell.”

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