In 1988, Damita Price was arrested for a $20 rock of crack cocaine in her pocket. It was her first arrest, so she was sentenced to probation. If she had gone to prison, she would have been one of 632 women incarcerated in Oklahoma, making up roughly 7.5 percent of the state’s prison population.
Four years later, in 1992, police stopped Price for speeding. They asked if she had weapons or drugs. Price told them about the gun under her seat, but denied having any drugs. “They went through my purse and claim they found a small piece [of crack cocaine] the size of a pencil lead,” she wrote in a letter from Mabel Bassett Correctional Center (MBCC), one of Oklahoma’s three women’s prisons. Price insists that the police planted the drugs. “I did not have any drugs on me or in my car,” she said. The judge did not believe her, sentencing her to four years in prison. By then, the number of women in prison had jumped almost 70 percent to 1075. She was released in 1994, two years later.
In 1995, Price accompanied a friend and two other men from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, where the men planned to buy cocaine. With a sick child at home, this seemed like a fine way to make money to pay for his many visits to the doctors. The deal, however, turned out to be a sting and all four were arrested. Price was charged with drug trafficking. Since she had neither bought nor sold the drugs, she took her case to trial. But in Oklahoma, drug trafficking is defined by the amount of drugs possessed, not whether a person has sold or transported drugs. That amount can be as little as 20 grams of methamphetamine or five grams of cocaine base. Price lost and was convicted of attempting to traffic controlled dangerous substances, conspiracy to traffic controlled dangerous substances, and unlawful delivery of cocaine. She was sentenced to life without parole, becoming, she wrote in her letter to The Nation, the first woman—and the first black woman—to face spending the rest of her life behind bars for her third drug offense. She was 28 years old. Her children were ages 9, 6, and 2.
When Price returned to prison in 1996, 1,815 women were in Oklahoma prisons—70 percent more than had been in prison at the beginning of Price’s previous stint, and nearly three times the number at the time of her first arrest. And the number of women in prison has only continued to climb. Over the last 20 years, Oklahoma has become the country’s capital of female incarceration, with 127 of every 100,000 women behind bars, double the national rate of 63 per 100,000. It’s a situation so pronounced that even the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has had to acknowledge it: “Oklahoma has consistently ranked first in the rate of female incarceration nationally,” the department stated in both its 2013 and 2014 annual reports.
But Oklahoma’s prisons aren’t filled with the fairer sex because Oklahoma women pose more of a threat than women elsewhere; the state simply penalizes women’s actions more forcefully—much more forcefully. At the same time, social safety nets have been cut away, limiting women’s options for other means of survival.
According to Susan Sharp, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners, drug possession and drug trafficking are the top two reasons for the ballooning women’s prison population. And indeed, of the 1,152 women entering Oklahoma’s prison system in 2013, 52.6 percent were arrested for a drug offense, with 26.2 percent ultimately sentenced for possession and 16.6 percent for distribution. Keep in mind that Oklahoma often ratchets up the charges by counting possessing, distributing, transporting or manufacturing a certain quantity of drugs as trafficking. “Five grams of crack or twenty grams of meth can be charged as a trafficking act,” Sharp explained.
Moreover, sentencing is more severe in Oklahoma than elsewhere. Compare the state’s mean sentence for “drug trafficking” to the country’s mean sentence for the same crime: In Oklahoma, the average penalty is 1o.3 years, while the country’s is 6 years.
In addition, conditions in Oklahoma often push women down the path toward prison. Oklahoma ranks among the bottom 16 states for women’s mental health, meaning that Oklahoma women report experiencing poor mental-health conditions, including stress, depression and eating disorders, at a higher average than in many other states. In 2015, it ranked among the bottom 10 states for women’s economic security and access to health insurance and higher education.
The result of all these tangled, competing forces is a vicious cycle in which the women who have the least access to social and economic independence, health insurance and mental health treatment are the most at risk for imprisonment. And, as in other parts of the country, women of color tend to suffer disproportionately: in a state where black people make up only 7.7 percent of the entire population, nearly 20 percent of the women’s prison population is African-American; Native American women are 13 percent of the prison population, but Native people of all genders are only 9 percent of the state population.
Yet, rather than address these disparities, Oklahoma continues to lock up the women who are most vulnerable to them.
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All her life, Mary Fish has been on the receiving end of Oklahoma’s unwillingness to help its most vulnerable residents. A member of the Creek Nation, Fish grew up in Okfuskee County on a rural dirt road, the seventh of nine children. Her earliest memories are of her father beating her mother or older brothers; she also remembers him frequently withholding money for groceries. She dropped out of school in11th grade, then ran away from home, eventually moving to Oklahoma City where, she recalled, “I scammed and ripped my way across the streets in a [haze of] sick drug-hued small crimes like shoplifting, pirating gasoline from 7-11 and other convenience stores.”
Fish’s legal trials began in 1979, when, at the age of 27, she drove her brother to a bar to cash a check. The details are tangled, but they involve her bringing her impatient 2-year-old son into the bar while her brother tried unsuccessfully to convince the bartender to cash his check, getting groped by another patron, grabbing the patron’s watch, getting kicked out by the bartender kicked and driving away, only to feel guilty and return just as the police were trying to handcuff her brother. When she saw the police, she tried to make a U-turn, which caused one of the officers to assume she was going to hit him. She did not, but a chase still ensued. “I ran out of gas and the police got me.” Although she had not hit the officer, she was still charged with assault and battery with an automobile and, in 1980, went to prison for the first time.
By 1982, Fish was out of prison, but life remained difficult. Her mother died and Fish turned to alcohol in her grief. Three men visited Fish to buy some of the marijuana she had been growing behind her trailer. “I tried to find the plants I had been growing, but was too drunk,” she recalled. After finding the plants, two of the men left; the third, Ronald Mahee, stayed. “We fell asleep, I guess,” Fish recalled, “or I did and I woke up to a man on top of me.” Fish said that she tried to flee; when Mahee caught up to her, she stabbed him with a paring knife. Mahee died in her yard. She was sentenced to 10 years for first-degree manslaughter. She spent five years in prison, where a cellmate introduced her to Dilaudid, a pain reliever. “In those five years, I turned from an alcoholic to a Dilaudid-injecting addict,” she recalled. “I thought if I could just stop drinking, I could lick this curse that would not leave me.” Instead, it led to addiction and several arrests for minor offenses like shoplifting.
In 2002, Fish, no longer in prison, brought her two sons to visit her brother, who asked her to drive to a friend’s house so that he could borrow $20. The friend was not home, but another man was. According to Fish, the man told her son, “If you ever come out here and try to steal anything, I will kill you!” Fish took her children home, then returned to the house and beat him in the head with a piece of rebar. “I was on methadone and other drugs and overreacted,” she explained. She was arrested and convicted of assault and battery with intent to kill and, because she also took his wallet, robbery. She is now serving a 40-year sentence.
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Amid the many twists and turns of Fish’s story, there is one consistent thread that weaves through the narrative: Time and again, Oklahoma’s social safety net failed to catch her when she needed it. Had the violence and poverty in her childhood been addressed, perhaps she would have graduated from high school instead of dropping out and moving to the city. As an adult, Fish was left to navigate her way through poverty, parenthood, substance abuse, and an environment where violence—including violence against women—was considered the norm. Incarceration addressed none of these; instead, each time Fish came home, she still had to reckon with the issues that had originally sent her to prison.
The circumstances are different but the spirit of the narrative is distressingly similar for “Gillian,” who asked that her real name not be used to protect her and her family’s privacy. Gillian, now age 45, has spent 15 years—or one-third of her life—behind bars. Like Fish, drugs were the triggering force, although that is not reflected in the charges listed against her.
Gillian was first arrested in 1998, two years after she had lost her job and four years after she had become addicted to heroin. She was charged with shoplifting, false impersonation, and possession of a stolen vehicle. The judge sentenced her to a boot camp and six years of probation. If she completed both, no felony would appear on her record. Gillian’s mother was granted temporary guardianship of Gillian’s toddler son; Gillian was prohibited from any contact.
At the boot camp, Gillian recalled, “They treated us like dogs. Barked orders at us and insulted us. Came in in the middle of the night and tore up the dorm a couple of times and we had to run around the track with our mats on our back.” The boot camp offered her no programs to address her addiction, help her find a job or regain guardianship of her son. “When I got out, I was simultaneously enraged and depressed by the further mess my life had become and almost immediately relapsed,” she wrote in a recent letter from prison. She got pregnant, failed to report to her probation officer and was soon arrested. This time, her father paid her bail, allowing her to give birth outside and leave her newborn son with him before being sent to prison for a year and a half.
Once released, Gillian quickly picked up her habit again and was arrested after attempting a carjacking with an unloaded gun one year later. The man disarmed her and called the police, who connected her to an armed robbery she had committed six months earlier. Facing 45 years if convicted at trial, Gillian entered what’s known as a blind plea—in which a person pleads guilty without knowing what the sentence will be—and received a 20-year sentence. Under Oklahoma’s Truth-in-Sentencing Act, she must complete 85 percent of her sentence before she becomes eligible for parole. In Gillian’s case, this means 17 years.
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For women like Fish and Gillian, prison does not merely mean the loss of liberty; it also means a loss of their children, sometimes permanently. In 1997, Congress passed the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, stipulating that the state begin proceedings to terminate parental rights if a child had spent 15 of the past 22 months in foster care. Mary Fish knows this firsthand. After she entered prison in 2002, her youngest son was placed with a foster family. She signed over custody, thinking the family would adopt him. She was wrong. Thirteen years later, Fish is not sure where exactly her son, now grown, lives. Other than one letter, she has had no contact with him. But Fish’s experience is not unusual. In 2014, Susan Sharp conducted a survey of incarcerated mothers for Oklahoma’s Commission on Children and Youth. She found that nearly 10 percent of the women participating had children in foster care, placing them at greater risk for permanent separation from their parents.
Even when they know that their children are safe with other family members, incarceration still takes its toll. Gillian did not see her older son for over 10 years. She has seen him a handful of times within the past few years, but she laments that they remain “virtual strangers.” Although her father brings her younger son to visit regularly, he too has grown up without his mother.
And then there are the nightmare scenarios, the tragedies. Before her incarceration in 1992, Damita Price noticed that her 6-year-old son Seone was falling more often than normal and took him to the doctor, who ordered some blood tests. She learned that he had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which results in muscle degeneration and early death. Unwilling to believe that her son had a terminal illness, she recounted “taking my son to any and all doctors that would give me a second opinion that he did not have this disease.” To finance these visits, she began selling drugs. So when a friend approached her in 1995 and asked if she wanted to make some money by joining her and two others on a trip to Oklahoma City, she agreed. It was during this trip that she was arrested for drug trafficking and sent to prison for life without parole.
Twelve years after that day—and one week before her 40th birthday—Price was called into her case manager’s office, where her mother was on the phone. Her son, Seone, had died.
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To some degree, Oklahoma recognizes that it has a problem. To combat the drastic increase in incarceration caused by the War on Drugs (as well as the accompanying costs), counties have turned to drug courts, which send women (and men) charged with a nonviolent drug crime to treatment programs, rather than prison. However, failing to complete the stipulations of the drug court can lead to prison, sometimes for a lengthier sentence than if a person had initially pled guilty. Oklahoma has a 42 percent rate of drug-court failure, Sharp noted in her book. In an interview with The Nation, she added that the average sentence for failure is 74 months. Most of these failures, she points out, are for flunking a urine test or not paying court-imposed fines. It’s an “alternative,” in other words, that is also a pathway to prison.
Sentencing is another area in which state is beginning to recognize the need for change. “We definitely need to revisit lengthy sentences, especially for drug crimes and low-level property crimes,” Sharp told The Nation. In February 2015, state legislators introduced House Bill 1574, which allows for a 20-year sentence instead of requiring life without parole for a third drug offense (so long as the two prior convictions are not drug trafficking). And on May 6, 2015, Governor Mary Fallin signed it into law. But Damita Price, who is now on her 20th year, and the 54 other people serving life without parole for drug offenses won’t be going home, because the bill is not retroactive. Even if it were, it would not extend to felonies involving violence like Gillian’s and Mary Fish’s, even though drug use was the motivating factor.
So what could stem the flow of women to prison?
Although few people ask the women, they themselves may be the best source of wisdom for how to disrupt Oklahoma’s womb-to-prison pipeline. After years behind prison walls, these women understand how their lives—and their lack of opportunities—helped snare them in the criminal-justice net. And they know what needs to change for women in the state. Reflecting on their experiences, they see the holes in the state’s social safety net that would have kept them from falling out of society and into prison. They also know the solutions that would help keep other lives from being destroyed. But these solutions are not quick fixes; instead, they are systemic changes that might take decades, if not generations, and would refashion Oklahoma dramatically.
In numerous letters, Fish sings the praises of Dr. Jaime Burns, an assistant professor at the University of Central Oklahoma’s School of Criminal Justice. For the past three years, Burns has taken about 15 university students to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center to meet with an equal number of incarcerated students as part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program. Each week, the group discusses different issues, including the idea of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a theory and practice by which people who have harmed others take steps to try to repair the damage. The process includes not only the person who has done the harm and the person(s) harmed, but also their families and communities.
“Had restorative justice been implemented in the court system in 1980, I would have gleaned so much knowledge about simple things like alcoholism, boundaries, mental health, the list is endless,” Fish said. Instead, prison became her “learning ground.”
Would restorative justice have kept Fish out of prison? Burns thinks so. “I would argue that if she would have had the opportunity to learn about her actions way before that point, maybe that wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if she had learned how the little stuff was impacting in a big way beforehand, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “If somebody had sat her down and said, ‘This is how this impacted me in my life and this is going to impact your life as well,’ maybe the bigger stuff wouldn’t have happened. But we have to try to deal with things preventatively, proactively, instead of a very reactionary system.”
For Gillian, keeping out of prison would require a comprehensive change in state policies. “To keep women out of prison, so much would have to change in the current system, Oklahoma would be unrecognizable,” she initially wrote. “This is a generations/decades-long endeavor.” But, in a later letter, reflecting on her own history of substance abuse and incarceration, she added, “Everyone thinks drug treatment, more and better, is the answer. It is part of the solution, but decriminalization is probably more important. How many alcoholics are in prison for anything other than DUI? That’s because the cost of their drug of choice is not prohibitive. Nobody robs a liquor store so they can buy liquor.”
Price, who turned 47 in April, agrees that major structural changes would be needed. “I would have needed a better healthcare system for a terminally ill child. That is the only thing that would have kept me out of prison,” she reflected. “I sacrificed my life for my son. I know now I would have done it differently, but at that time, that was the quickest way to make money to help my son.”