Sunday, February 21, 2010

News Story 1

Students lobby at Capitol to help incarcerated women

OU student filming documentary to raise awareness about Oklahoma's high incarceration rate
Cleveland County's detention center houses on average 185 prisoners a day.

OKLAHOMA CITY - To improve the situation of incarcerated women in Oklahoma, one OU student is filming a documentary.


Women’s and gender studies senior, Amina Benalioulhaj, led a small group of students from the Women’s and Gender Studies Student Association to the state capitol Wednesday to get footage and meet with lawmakers.


“It was a kind of last minute decision, but all-in-all I think we had a productive day,” Benalioulhaj said.


Women’s and gender studies graduate, Sandra Criswell, said she and other students met with Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma County, whose bill, Senate Bill 2329, intends to decrease Oklahoma’s extremely high rate of incarcerations.


“[Sen. Johnson] was really open to feedback, and she’s really interested in collaborating with students,” Criswell said.


Benalioulhaj said Senate Majority Whip, Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, refused to let the bill be heard because it concerned prison reform.


“Most of these lawmakers just don’t want to appear soft on crime, and that’s not the way politics should work,” Benalioulhaj said. “Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, you should consider all sides, and you should hear out any bill thoroughly.”


Criswell said e-mails were sent to other student organizations on campus, and encouraged them to call Sen. Sykes and request he allow Johnson’s bill to be heard on the Senate floor.


“If no one calls the lawmakers and tells them what they support, lawmakers will vote however they want,” Criswell said. “They’re ultimately held accountable by their constituents.”


Benalioulhaj said the high incarceration rate of women is a human and fiscal issue.


“It’s really a waste of our money and it’s a waste of our state’s resources,” Benalioulhaj said.


According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections Web site, Oklahoma has the highest per capita female incarceration rate in the nation, and fourth highest male incarceration rate.


A press release issued by Johnson reports Senate Bill 2329 could save the state $125 million establishing alternative placement programs for non-violent offenders.


Benalioulhaj said she was inspired to make a documentary after reading her women’s studies professor’s research on the issue. Her professor, Susan Sharp conducts the annual Oklahoma

Study of Incarcerated Women and Their Children, which is a survey of women prisoners that examines their childhoods, mental health problems, substance abuse histories, criminal histories, and their children.


“This is an issue that affects us all as humans,” Sharp said in an e-mail. “We lack the understanding that many of these women need help, not punishment, and certainly not rejection.”


Sharp said her research revealed that most incarcerated women are low level drug offenders and property offenders, whose histories of abuse are linked to why they began using drugs, and ending up in prison.


“Many of those children will end up dealing with their own emotional pain by using drugs and ending up in prison,” she said.


Other state initiatives suffer, Sharp said, partly because of the high cost spent on incarcerations.


“Money goes to corrections rather than to education, health, social services, road maintenance, etc."


Criswell said the Women's and Gender Studies Student Association is planning another lobbying day at the capitol to take place in early April.


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