Mean Lives or Mean State?

David Smithers reviews Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma's Women Prisoners (Rutgers University Press 2014)

Not an institution of reform

meanlivescoverOklahoma is the 20th most extensive and 28th most populous state of the 50 United States, and also, according to Wikipedia, derives its name from the Choctaw words “okla” and “humma”, meaning “red people”. 25 indigenous languages are spoken there, second only to California. It was a place where various indigenous peoples of North America were forced to go, part of the Indian Territory. Oklahoma is also known as the Sooner State, after the white settlers who were able to claim the choicest lands prior to statehood and the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889.

I was thinking, when I saw the new book on the shelf at the University of Iowa library, about what anti-Native American racism might be a part of prison life for females in Oklahoma. The stats go like this. The female prison population went from 5.8% of the prison population and reached 10% by 1995 and 10.6% by 2010. And this occurred during a period of general rise in prison population in Oklahoma and nationwide. American Indians make up 12.3% of the women prisoners (add another 10% for mixed race white/American Indian, by 2009) The rest in 2009: Hispanic 3.3%, Black 19.6%, White 49.5%. Oklahoma is 72.2% white; 8.6% native, 7.4% black, 1.7% Asian, 4.2% other, and 5.9% multi-race.

This book is about female incarceration in Oklahoma. It is nearly twice the national rate for women prisoners. But the subject matter and discussion reflects national and international conditions of women both in prison or not. It is simply a particularly harsh corner of the world of capitalism and patriarchy.

A timeless viewpoint is of deviant women not only as criminals, but also in violation of the code of womanhood. Sexually deviant, acting like men, they are doubly deviant. That supposedly discredited viewpoint is underneath much of the blame the victim mentality and the threat to females from a significant sector of the public who would hold women totally responsible for their fetuses, even to the point of being murders, in case of miscarriage, by drug usage or other behavior.

The strain theory and more particularly feminist strain theory posits that societal structure traps women before they are even criminalized. Life pathways analysis and adverse childhood exposures already trap individuals who need help and treatment. The criminal justice system, tuned by harsh laws, particularly for drug usage, stiff sentences, frequent legal and / or practical parental separation from children, and paltry care in prison for these these life tattered women, sucks up all the money and energy of society to make mean lives even meaner.

The so-called winds of change are reformist milquetoast. Religious missions of volunteer agencies color what help women do get, as the state refuses to provide enough funding to ameliorate the conditions, much less to repair the lives the women have already led between the dangerous shoals of their varied, yet strikingly common pathways to deviance or simply being snared by the justice system.

Susan F. Sharp is the David Ross Boyd professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. She is co-chair of the Oklahoma Task Force on Children of Incarcerated Parents, and author, also, of Hidden Victims: Effects of the Death Penalty on Families of the Accused.

Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners is a volume in the Critical Issues in Crime and Society series. Her other work, mentioned above, and other interesting titles by other authors are in this series, edited by Raymond J. Michalowski. Of few authors that I have read on this topic, Angela Davis with her calls to abolish prisons, particularly for the connection of labor, race, and gender to the prison-industrial complex, are a gold standard. Susan Sharp is critical but merely reformist, at least for this book, tied as it it to state and foundation-funded research and politics. But the details of her studies and teachings are important nonetheless.

A student of Sharp’s Women, Girls and Crime course made a video for her senior project. “WOMEN BEHIND BARS was directed, produced, shot and edited by Amina Benalioulhaj, a Women’s and Gender Studies graduate of the University of Oklahoma. Using the research of Presidential Professor of Sociology, Dr. Susan Sharp, Amina sought to make a documentary film the would expose Oklahoma’s #1 rate for female incarceration in the world.”1

What are the pathways to prison? Aside from the Kafkaesque system and the War on Drugs, the women in and headed to prison frequently had physical and sexual abuse growing up and often continuing in adulthood, including intimate partner abuse and rape. The women were often in families where crime existed and previous generations had been in prison. Some have a mother or even grandmother in prison. And their children are at risk of a mean life path to prison, poverty and mortality. As children, they experienced more and more multiples of adverse childhood experiences than the normal population. Women are likely to spend multiple prison terms.

Most important, they lacked support outside of prison. Success depends on uncritical and enlightened support. Society and prison gives little to none of that. Out of prisons the job market is reduced, and hiring for even approved jobs is marred by prejudice and fear from employers. Housing and reuniting with family is hindered by restrictions from publicly funded housing. If the woman is lucky she has access to good halfway housing.

It is a mean world even without a criminal record for many women. Much more so with one. Women are caught by drug laws, including drug traffic laws which penalize certain levels of possession as trafficking. Women are low-hanging fruit ensnared, instead of the real pushers, and by their often very collateral or innocent association with criminal husbands or boyfriends.

A woman leaves harsh prison with fifty dollars, original and probably ill-fitting and inadequate clothing, hefty state-imposed debt, and virtually no plan or hope or assistance. Prison did nothing but rob her of her life years and probably her children and family. Often her only option is to return to her former life and associations that got her in trouble in the first place.

Caregivers of children, often a grandparent, get paltry monthly assistance, foster parents better. The risk of sibling separation is grave. Abuse and placement trouble exist. Parental rights are at great risk and the practical separation all but dooms mother-child bonds.

Sharp’s student,  Amina Benaliohaj, the one who made the film said it best: “I’ve studied domestic violence, the gender wage gap, the feminization of poverty, divorce, single motherhood, abortion, reproductive rights, and sexual health education. All these issues that touch women in particular touch incarcerated women disproportionately…. The most important thing that I’ve learned interacting with these women and children is that they’re human.”2

One especially noteworthy chapter in the book is “Going Back Again” by one of Sharp’s students, Dr. Juana Ortiz. Her chapter is based on interviews of women incarcerated for a second or subsequent time. Life in prison is often kinder than the horror outside. Lack of public transportation, inadequate welfare support, low wages, lack of housing, and lack of support for those who are abused, mentally ill, or in debt to the state, are problems for workers and ex-prisoners. For many of the same reasons that life is harsh for workers who are not ex-convicts, life is next to impossible for ex-convicts to make a go of it.

Amazingly, Sharp relates in Women Behind Bars that the sociologist who hired her at Oklahoma State, having proudly stated that the female incarceration rate was twice the national average, explained why that was the case – Oklahoma just had mean women! The video gives good aural perspective to the readings available in Sharp’s work and I recommend watching it as a companion to the book.

There are no good reasons for so many people to be in prison, especially for nonviolent offenses. Prison, as we know it, must be abolished so that resources can be redirected to treatment, education and support for working people. Prisoners need to be able to form labor unions and to vote – basically, to organize for their interests.



  2. Larson, Annika 2010, Oklahoma Daily October 26, 2010

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