New year, new life for Oklahoma prisoners

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 2nd of January, 2020. I have to stop and think about that! Thank you for listening to today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: prison reform in Oklahoma.

The state of Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the world. To give you a sense of proportion, the United States prison population is 698 of every 100,000 residents. For Oklahoma, though, it’s 1,079 out of 100,000, and that means the state incarceration rate is more than 55 percent higher than the national average.

But in 2016, Oklahomans voted to reclassify certain crimes. They changed several non-violent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. That means the punishment for those crimes decreased significantly.

WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen reports now on what happened next.

AUDIO: Alan McCall. Yes sir. Robert Gilliland. Yes. Adam Luck. Yes. Kelly Doyle. Yes. Larry Morris. Yes.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: This is a meeting of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. On November 1st, it voted to release hundreds of inmates from Oklahoma prisons.

AUDIO: To grant accelerated single stage commutation recommendation to inmates in the possession docket who have received a favorable recommendation by staff, moved by Alan McCall and seconded by Adam Luck has been carried by a vote of five to zero. [APPLAUSE]

Three days later, 462 inmates walked out of prisons across the state. It was the largest one-day release in U.S. history. And according to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt—that’s just the beginning. 

STITT: This group of non violent offenders is just a part of this story. By the end of this year we’re estimating we’ll have 2,000 empty beds.

Drug possession used to be a felony in Oklahoma. Conviction carried a sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to $5,000. Now, simple drug possession is a misdemeanor, with a one year maximum sentence. Voters made that change in 2016. But in 2019, Stitt signed a bill applying the new sentences retroactively to anyone currently serving time for those crimes. State Representative Jon Echols says that’s having a huge effect on Oklahoma’s prison population.

ECHOLS: I will tell you, at the end of the day, Oklahoma’s no longer No. 1 in the nation in incarceration. No longer. [APPLAUSE]

Kris Steele was one of the main advocates for the reform. He’s a former state representative and now runs an education and employment ministry for ex-offenders. He says Oklahoma has needed a change like this for decades.

STEELE: We, um, ultimately have created…a correctional system that for the most part is based on retribution and punishment. 

Steele says incarceration isn’t effective—or necessary—for non-violent offenders. He believes it exacerbates the problem by breaking up families and adding to the instability in a person’s life. So Steele advocates a different mindset.

STEELE: Addressing the core issues behind the behavior is what allows us to all ultimately give people an opportunity to reach their full potential in life, become contributing members of society.

But there’s still a big question mark in Oklahoma. Hundreds of inmates are walking free. Where do they go from here? Robin Khoury has been wondering about that a lot lately.

ROBIN KHOURY: You can commute all these sentences, but you can’t undo all of the damage to the fabric of those families.

Khoury runs a school for children whose parents are in prison. The mom of one of her students is getting released at the end of January.

KHOURY: I was wondering, gosh, I wonder if she has a place to stay. I wonder if she’s going to be, um, having this structure that she needs when she gets out. Like they need transportation, they need IDs, they need a place to stay, they need jobs.

Christie Luther runs a cosmetology school inside an Oklahoma prison. She says even the most basic decisions can be daunting for someone who’s just been released.

LUTHER: You leave prison after let’s say five years for example. And you go to Walmart or Target and you stand in the cereal aisle. That can be overwhelming.

Luther says former inmates need a support system and a re-entry plan.

LUTHER: Tell me, where are you going to live? Tell me, do you have clothing? Where are you going to work?…Where are you going? Is it a safe place? Meaning, are there no drugs?…If they don’t have those answers, by the time they leave, uh, their rate of success is really, really, really low.

The state tried to prepare inmates for re-entry by running transition fairs inside the prisons. The goal was to connect inmates with outside agencies that would provide transitional housing, education, transportation, and job training once they got out. A lot of groups have stepped up to help ex-offenders reboot their lives. But Luther says resources are still stretched thin.

LUTHER: We have very few, you know, available…transitional houses or space available in those transitional houses for those, for the people coming out.

Luther hopes to open one transitional house to help lighten the load. But she says it will take a group effort if Oklahoma wants to reap long-term benefits. Even with those challenges, Luther supports the reform efforts. In fact, she hopes this marks a turning point for the state.

LUTHER: I do see laws changing. I do see people standing up in the midst of, uh, the opposition to say…no, we’re tired of this in Oklahoma and we’re going to do something about it…And so I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen.

(Photo/Flickr, Creative Commons)

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