Recently released data on the mass incarceration crisis in Oklahoma has highlighted the critical need for action on behalf of Native women in Oklahoma state prisons. The recent data, analyzed by Open Justice Oklahoma and interpreted by OKPolicy, found that Native women are imprisoned in Oklahoma three times more often than white women, and have a higher imprisonment rate than any other race or ethnicity in the female incarceration category. This fact is hurting Tribal nations, families, and children, and, without policy change, will continue to persist.
Oklahoma has made some strides in the last few years in the area of criminal justice reform, after receiving, in 2016, the horrific distinction of being the state that incarcerates the most people per capita. After several consecutive years of this distinction, the state enacted a mass commutation in late 2019, which dropped the number of people incarcerated dramatically and moved Oklahoma down to the number two spot. It is a good start that the overall incarceration rates for Oklahomans have gone down; but number two is hardly something to be proud of. And furthermore, Oklahoma has led the nation in female incarceration for over twenty-five years, and still does, locking women up at twice the national average.
These incarceration rates have had a spiralling effect on Oklahoma families. Of the incarcerated women in Oklahoma, 80 percent are mothers. In 2014 in the state, 6,000 children were impacted by maternal incarceration. And across Oklahoma, Native children are twice as likely as white children to have an incarcerated parent. In a previous commentary, I laid out the generational impacts incarceration has on children and the systemic barriers they face because of it in further detail (you can read more on the challenges such children face, as well as my story, here).
Such a crisis has dire consequences for Native communities, given the integral part that women play at large and in their Tribal communities in particular. In my tribe, the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, we are a matrilineal society, meaning many of our traditions are passed down from our mothers. Incarceration robs Native communities of essential transmissions of traditions and culture, and disrupts community cohesion as a whole. This aspect of women’s roles in Native lives is not just part of the nature of the crisis: we should take it into account in our response to the crisis, too. If we are not including Native women in our policy solutions to continue justice reforms in Oklahoma, then we are propagating traumas that have persisted and will continue to persist for generations to come, and which threaten Native communities’ very existence. Having worked on the ground in Oklahoma, fighting the mass incarceration of Indigenous people, I know that policymakers are aware of the crisis; yet it continues to get worse as the years go by. We need to focus on policy solutions that ensure that Native women are not left behind.
If we are not including Native women in our policy solutions to continue justice reforms in Oklahoma, then we are propagating traumas that have persisted and will continue to persist for generations to come, and which threaten Native communities’ very existence.
We need to dramatically change our system of mass incarceration in Oklahoma: the road to success and safety is a long one, but conscience and survival gives us—all of us—no choice but to walk it.
Here are four concrete actions Oklahoma can take now to aid in the decarceration of Native women:
Action 1: Data, Data, Data
Track and ensure the transparency and accessibility of critical data regarding Native women (and men) and their Tribal affiliations in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections intake form, so we know how many Native people are being incarcerated, and from which tribes. This data is critical when it comes to informing Tribal nations, so they can create or expand re-entry services and ensure their policies don’t exclude formerly incarcerated people from educational, employment, or housing opportunities. Lastly, these data are crucial for the efforts to ensure Tribal youth who are experiencing parental incarceration have adequate resources and support during and after their parents’ incarceration because consistent data will be able to showcase the true extent incarceration has in family units.
Action 2: At the Table
Continue to include Tribal nations in the justice reform efforts in Oklahoma, and ensure women in particular are included. According to the Oklahoma Department of Correction, Native women make up 9 percent of the state’s population, but comprise 12 percent of Oklahoma prison’s population. Several Tribes have been at the forefront of justice reform, but the continual efforts to ensure their seats at the table should be mandatory. Only Tribes will have the ability to best serve their Tribal citizens because they understand the challenges, potential solutions that will support communities and break the cycle of incarceration.
Action 3: Enact State Question 805
State question 805 is on the ballot in Oklahoma in November, and it is critical to addressing the incarceration crisis. State question 805 will amend the harsh sentencing laws that Oklahoma is—unfortunately—known for. The question will allow those convicted of non-violent felonies to not have their sentences made harsher because of past felony convictions, as is currently the case. The policy would also be retroactive and apply to those currently incarcerated, thereby helping up to half of the many women imprisoned in the state for non-violent felonies.
Action 4: Alternatives to Incarceration
In a previous article, I wrote in support of primary caretaker legislation, in Oklahoma introduced in 2019 as HB 2019. The primary caretaker legislation is meant to allow caretakers who are facing incarceration to not be separated from a minor child in their care, by community supervision which allows them to stay home and access resources such as drug and alcohol treatment, job training and placement, and financial literacy. Although it was introduced in 2019, the bill has been stalled due to several unforeseen circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is essential that the bill move forward: if passed in the Oklahoma legislature and made retroactive, it could impact 60 percent of the women currently incarcerated who were the primary caretakers of their children prior to incarceration.
For our mothers, aunties, and daughters, the carceral system should not be stealing our legacies.
Remembering the past legacies of our state, which has treated Native people poorly, is important, but not enough. We can still take a stand and choose to prevent further damage. For our mothers, aunties, and daughters, the carceral system should not be stealing our legacies.