While many Oklahomans enjoy touting the OU football team’s No. 1 ranking, there is one category in which the state leads that isn’t so glamorous.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the Sooner state ranks first in the nation in female incarceration, incarcerating 132 women per 100,000 population, compared to the national average of 68.
To address the issues surrounding this statewide dilemma, the OU College of Liberal Studies will host a free screening of the documentary film, Women Behind Bars: The Voices of Oklahoma’s Incarcerated Women and their Children, followed by a panel discussion with experts in the field.
Women Behind Bars was directed, produced and edited by Amina Benalioulhaj, a recent graduate of OU’s Women and Gender Studies Program.
Benalioulhaj enrolled in Dr. Susan Sharp’s course “Women, Girls and Crime” in the spring 2010 semester. Sharp, a professor in the OU Department of Sociology and a College of Liberal Studies faculty fellow, has researched Oklahoma’s incarcerated women for more than 10 years. Her work inspired Benalioulhaj to pursue the film.
The facts that pave the way to Oklahoma’s spot at the top of female incarceration rates are disturbing but telling. As adults, 71.1 percent of female inmates were victims of domestic violence; 36.2 percent were victims of rape after age 18. As children, 66.4 percent experienced child physical and/or sexual abuse.
The majority of female inmates are non-violent offenders, most commonly imprisoned for drug possession, drug distribution, forgery and property crimes.
More than 85 percent of Oklahoma women in prison are mothers.
“The first thing we must all come to understand is that women’s human rights affect all human rights,” Benalioulhaj said. “Women are increasingly becoming the heads of single parent-led homes. To a large extent, they are responsible for supporting, nurturing and educating their children. The health of a mother determines the health of a child, future generations and society at large.
“When a mother is taken from a family, whether by death or incarceration, the ripple effects of her loss are felt by everyone and there is an added burden to her extended family, friends and community members. The lack of stability shifts itself outward.”
These ripple effects are the focus of Women Behind Bars and will drive much of the panel discussion following the film screening. Panel members are Laura J. Pitman, deputy director, Female Offender Operations, Oklahoma Department of Corrections; Sheila Harbert, director of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars of Eastern Oklahoma; and Benalioulhaj. Sharp will moderate the discussion.
The OU College of Liberal Studies’ sponsorship of the screening ties into the college’s 50th anniversary celebrations, a milestone being marked this year.
“Ever since its founding in the 1960s, the college has sought to help students understand complex issues by using an interdisciplinary approach,” said College of Liberal Studies Associate Dean Martha Banz. “Today more than ever, we recognize that most of our seemingly intractable social and political issues are highly complex, which means that effective solutions will need to be equally multifaceted.
“As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, what better way to highlight our history and tradition than to put those guiding principles into practice as we study the complicated issue of women’s imprisonment.”
Women Behind Bars premiered at the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City in June. It has also been shown to various schools and organizations throughout the state.
Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.