Last Saturday afternoon, while my children and I were piddling
around the house, I looked out the front window to see a family
friend, Tracey, as her sister pulled up in her car for a spontaneous
visit. I was glad to see them. After all, Tracey had been in prison
for the last year and was released just three weeks ago.
I know Tracey (not her real name) through her sister, and, over
the years, she has become someone who cares about my family, someone
who I once helped get a job, and someone who I have very
affectionate feelings toward. Tracey was tangled up in a drug arrest
years ago and, according to the Department of Corrections online
offender lookup, was sentenced to one year for what appears to be a
violation of probation for illegal possession of controlled
substances. I won't be offering up any judgments here of her
behavior, nor her legal case. But we did spend a half-hour in my
kitchen, talking about the details of her recent experience. Prison
is no picnic.
She described her term (largely at Eddie Warrior in a room with
82 women) as the most degrading experience of her life, details too
graphic and humiliating to print here. Tracey, in her early 30s, has
a loving mother and siblings; she is not married and has no
children. She has hope and has always been an optimist. A former
employer helped place her in a new position. In fact, Tracey was on
her way to her new job when they stopped by the house.
Tracey is one of the thousands of Oklahoma women who have been
sentenced to prison terms in Oklahoma for non-violent offenses -
usually drug-related crimes - that have made our state the most
likely place for a woman to be imprisoned in the world. Oklahoma
incarcerates more women per capita than any state in the nation.
Because the United States incarcerates more people per capita than
any country (less than 5 percent of the world's human population yet
23.4 percent of the world's prison population), Oklahoma
incarcerates more women per capita than any place on the planet.
Why? I asked my friend Arthur LeFrancois. Art is a law professor
at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, where he teaches
criminal law, procedure and jurisprudence. He also has served in
various leadership positions in criminal sentencing reform and has
written about this very issue at length.
"It's possible that Oklahoma has the most evil women in the
nation (and by the same metric, just about the most evil men)," Art
says. "But I think we incarcerate so many women for the same reason
we incarcerate so many men. We do criminal justice policy by the
seat of our pants, letting slogans be our guides."
I'll spare the citations here in the interest of space. Just the
facts: Between 1977 and 2004, the nation has seen a 757-percent
overall increase in the number of women in prison. …