Changing Hearts, Getting Free

ACLU of Oklahoma launches a bold campaign to educate voters on criminal justice reform and the power of district attorneys.

story by Jezy Gray

When it comes to putting people behind bars, Oklahoma stands alone. The state leads the nation in the incarceration of women, and was—until very recently—a close second overall. But after the passage of new criminal justice reforms in Louisiana, the Sooner State has officially become the single largest incarcerator in the United States. In a country representing 4.4% of the world's population but 22% of its prisoners, Oklahomans are among the most jailed people on the planet.

This isn't where anyone wants to be, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma is taking action. The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice aims to curb world-record incarceration rates in the U.S., with the long-term goal of reducing prison populations nationally by 50%. This nationwide initiative calls for prison reform issues to be front and center during district attorney elections and in the creation of new legislation.

Thanks to a grant from the national ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, the local chapter is launching a new initiative designed to bring stories and legal information about prison reform directly to the people. Smart Justice representatives and the formerly incarcerated will be canvassing the project door-to-door in communities across the state, introducing everyday voters to those who have felt the teeth of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

Black men are five times more likely to serve time in an Oklahoma prison or jail than their white counterparts... The number of Native people incarcerated in the state has increased 46% between 2008 and 2015. With those numbers in mind, the Campaign for Smart Justice is also a campaign about racial justice.

"Our plan is to work with people who have been incarcerated to help them tell their stories of what it’s like to be over-prosecuted and have your life ruined by a district attorney," says Allie Shinn, Director of External Affairs for ACLU of Oklahoma. "Part of what we're trying to do here is address why district attorneys so often run unopposed. They have this great amount of power over the lives of the people that they ostensibly serve—but too often there’s no race at all, and if there is, criminal justice reform isn’t at the center of it."

Who are the people so frequently abused by Oklahoma's criminal justice system? For starters, they're disproportionately black and brown. Black men are five times more likely to serve time in an Oklahoma prison or jail than their white counterparts. And while Oklahoma's female incarceration rate has gotten plenty of media coverage—drawn into disturbing relief with stories of women shackled during childbirth—less has been made of the struggle faced by Indigenous populations during this massive surge in imprisonment. The number of Native people incarcerated in the state has increased 46% between 2008 and 2015. With those numbers in mind, the Campaign for Smart Justice is also a campaign about racial justice.

Nicole McAfee of ACLU's Smart Justice campaign
McAfee and some of the Smart Justice team.
"Women are the fastest growing correctional population nationwide. Local jails are a major driver of that growth. The number of women in jail has increased from approximately 8,000 in 1970 to 110,000 in 2014. And over the past 15 years, 99 percent of jail growth has been a product of pretrial incarceration. Women may have more trouble affording bail than men because of higher poverty levels and the gender pay gap." -ACLU of Oklahoma

"We want to change hearts and minds about what justice means and what it looks like," says Smart Justice Campaign Manager Nicole McAfee. "Most people know someone who has been incarcerated. It touches families. It touches friends. But there's often such a stigma around incarceration, and talking about it can be really hard. Part of what we’re doing is trying to create a platform for people to talk about how they’ve been impacted, and also for folks who haven't to learn what that looks like. The idea is to re-frame who we think of when we talk about people who are in prisons and jails.

ACLU funds were awarded to 10 states with high rates of imprisonment and high potential for meaningful reform. The goal in Oklahoma is to take on a statewide public awareness campaign, but for now the focus is on the counties of Tulsa, Payne, Logan, Pontotoc, Seminole and Comanche. The Campaign for Smart Justice goals are ultimately electoral, but the real work centers on building relationships. "We believe the folks closest to the problem are closest to the solutions," McAfee says.

Since the people most damaged by the system often don’t have the resources to enact the reforms needed to change it, the goal of this new initiative is to amplify those voices and make them a serious factor in district attorney elections.

McAfee thinks Oklahoma voters are way ahead of most state policy makers in recognizing the need for meaningful change. She points to the success of State Questions 780 and 781, which re-classified many drug possession charges and directed savings to treatment resources. These voter-enacted reforms, if left intact by a legislature prone to meddling, will relieve some of the burden on overpopulated prisons and over-policed communities across the state.

"(W)ith a continued effort, we can change the narrative and prison structure in a way that shifts Oklahoma toward not only slowed prison growth, but actual de-carceration," says McAfee. "People are ready to take action and do something that changes the system. The proof is at the ballot box."

The campaign director’s work, while community-focused, is also deeply personal. When her little sister was six, she witnessed the rape of her best friend by an older boy. He threatened them both at gunpoint, promising to kill the kids and their families if they ever told anyone.

"My sister went through several months of nightmares," McAfee says. "We didn't know what was wrong, until one day the sheriff knocked on our door and the story unfolded." Over the next several months, McAfee watched as her young sibling was prepped for court by a zealous district attorney who assured the traumatized child that the boy would spend as much time in a juvenile detention center as possible. The fulfillment of that promise was supposed to be a comfort for the young victims of this brutal crime, but that's not what it felt like to McAfee.

"I realized that didn't bring any justice to my sister or her friend," she says. "It didn’t help the trauma they'd been through. It didn't help the boy who committed this act. It didn't address the trauma that brought him to do it, or the trauma he inflicted on other people. It really just kind of left me questioning how and why we call this justice."

That experience animates McAfee's work on this bold new campaign. "It's something I've lived with and thought about every day since then. Now I have the chance to lift up these broader discussions around how and why we incarcerate people, and why we continue to elect district attorneys who are more worried about their felony conviction rates than actually bringing real, restorative justice to the folks whose interests they're supposed to represent. That’s what we’re trying to change here in Oklahoma."

Like to know more, get involved, or donate? The ACLU of Oklahoma put together a video summarizing the issue. Additionally, their website has more info on civil liberties issues, generally. We are particularly moved by the joint report of the ACLU of Oklahoma and Human Rights Watch. "'You Miss So Much When You’re Gone: The Lasting Harm of Jailing Mothers Before Trial in Oklahoma" is based on "more than 160 interviews with jailed and formerly jailed mothers, substitute caregivers, children, attorneys, service providers, child welfare employees, and advocates...document(ing) the harms experienced by women with minor children jailed pretrial in Oklahoma – which incarcerates more women per capita than any other state."