Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma's Women Prisoners

Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma's Women Prisoners

Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma's Women Prisoners

Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma's Women Prisoners


Oklahoma has long held the dubious honor of having the highest female incarceration rate in the country, nearly twice the national average. In this compelling new book, sociologist Susan Sharp sets out to discover just what has gone so wrong in the state of Oklahoma--and what that might tell us about trends in female incarceration nationwide.

The culmination of over a decade of original research, Mean Lives, Mean Laws exposes a Kafkaesque criminal justice system, one that has no problem with treating women as collateral damage in the War on Drugs or with stripping female prisoners of their parental rights. Yet it also reveals the individual histories of women who were jailed in Oklahoma, providing intimate portraits of their lives before, during, and after their imprisonment. We witness the impoverished and abusive conditions in which many of these women were raised; we get a vivid portrait of their everyday lives behind bars; and we glimpse the struggles that lead many ex-convicts to fall back into the penal system.

Through an innovative methodology that combines statistical rigor with extensive personal interviews, Sharp shows how female incarceration affects not only individuals, but also families and communities. Putting a human face on a growing social problem, Mean Lives, Mean Laws raises important questions about both the state of Oklahoma and the state of the nation.


As I was finishing my doctorate, I hoped to teach and conduct research in the area of deviance and gender, bringing a feminist perspective to my work. I was initially more interested in demonstrating gender differences in deviance and less interested in focusing on crime and the criminal justice system. However, three separate but related events led to the research agenda that has culminated in this book, changing the direction of my career.

The first event occurred in February 1996, when I interviewed at the University of Oklahoma for an assistant professor position in the Department of Sociology. My dissertation focused on female injecting-drug users (IDUs), and I was being considered as someone who would specialize in issues related to gender, crime, and deviance. As I was being driven around the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, something occurred which has had a lasting impact on my work. My guide, in an effort to convince me that I would really like being at the University of Oklahoma, proudly announced that Oklahoma had the highest female incarceration rate in the nation. I asked him why, expecting to hear a sociological explanation such as poverty level, lower educational attainment, high rate of drug use, or the lower status of women in the state. Instead, he commented, “Oklahoma has mean women.” I was appalled and speechless, but as I returned to Austin, I kept thinking about that statement and what it meant. Having worked as a drug counselor for years prior to obtaining my doctorate, I had firsthand experience, though little data, that suggested that the pathways into addiction and crime were often very different for women and men. Indeed, one of my reasons for wanting to study gender and deviance was to gather hard data that would support (or not support) my real-life experiences. I reached the conclusion that a feminist criminologist was needed in the state of Oklahoma if even academics saw the high female incarceration rate as solely the fault of the women. Therefore, I ended up taking the position at the University of Oklahoma, where I have remained. That incident, juxtaposed with the subsequent years of research, led to the title of this book.

The second event occurred during my first semester on campus. I was contacted by a professor in the Department of Human Relations, Dr. Susan Marcus-Mendoza. She had seen my areas of specialization in a list of incoming . . .

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