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.