Despite Gov. Mary Fallin’s lip service to a reduced incarceration rate among non-violent offenders in Oklahoma, 61 year old Larry E. Yarbrough was denied commutation on a life without parole sentence for drug trafficking.
The following is an amazingly kind and encouraging letter notifying our crew that we did not make it into the Austin Film Festival. Though disappointing, I felt it helped to place our hard work into perspective - we’re doing the best we can, and hopefully someone out there caught a glimpse of the film and loved it, even though it didn’t make the final cut.
Thank you Austin Film Festival! We were honored just to have been considered!
September 14th, 2011
Dear Amina Benalioulhaj,
Thank you for submitting your film Women Behind Bars to the 2011 Austin Film Festival. With over 2,500 submissions, it has been extremely challenging to determine selections for this year’s competition. Regretfully, we must inform you that your film was not selected for screening at the festival this year.
Please know how much we appreciate the filmmaking process, the labor of love and the trials and tribulations that come with taking a story and transforming it into a film that can be shared with the world. To ensure that each film was given fair and careful consideration, each work was watched and evaluated at least twice. However, judging film, at any level, is a very complicated process and one that is, by nature, extremely subjective. Also, as with every festival, we are limited by the number of films we can fit into a program each year.
Do not let this discourage you. Your talent and the measure of your film’s success in the marketplace are not subject to the outcome of a single competition. We encourage and challenge you to continue working to get your film recognized. Competitions are a great start, but don’t stop there. This is an industry that demands persistence. If filmmaking is your passion, pursue it relentlessly.
The Austin Film Festival and the programming team wish you all the best in your future endeavors and we hope that we can continue to be a resource for you in the future. Our door is always open for someone with a new story to tell.
“Based on conversations I have had with criminologists both here and abroad, it appears as if most of the civilized world finds the U.S. decision to use prisons to fight crime - a decision that flies in the face of research that strongly suggests that incarceration rates have little or no influence over crime rates - to be quite illogical. This low opinion of our justice system stems from the understanding that living in poverty is the most important factor in determining who is most likely to wind up in prison. That being the case, it is nonsensical to take money away from programs that fight poverty or help people to rise above its influence to pay for more prison cells.”—The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime - Joel Dyer
Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category ‘crime’ and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.
Prisons thus perform a feat of magic. Or rather the people who continually vote in new prison bonds and tacitly assent to a proliferating network of prisons and jails have been tricked into believing in the magic of imprisonment. But prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become big business.
To deliver up bodies destined for profitable punishment, the political economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality — such as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children — and on racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Colored bodies constitute the main human raw material in this vast experiment to disappear the major social problems of our time. Once the aura of magic is stripped away from the imprisonment solution, what is revealed is racism, class bias, and the parasitic seduction of capitalist profit. The prison industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of prisoners.
As prisons take up more and more space on the social landscape, other government programs that have previously sought to respond to social needs — such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — are being squeezed out of existence. The deterioration of public education, including prioritizing discipline and security over learning in public schools located in poor communities, is directly related to the prison ‘solution.’
There are a lot of people working on the issue of offending in the state of Oklahoma - check this link out to read a little bit more about what is being done, not just for female offenders, but for all those incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.
CEDAW might help the reader to establish a little bit of footing for our subject matter: Women’s Human Rights.
WOMEN BEHIND BARS is a student film production affiliated with the University of Oklahoma and the research of Dr. Susan Sharp.
Dr. Sharp, Presidential Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Oklahoma, began conducting research on the life-histories of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women 10 years ago.Through her continued efforts to educate the public on issues of female criminal behavior she has helped make it possible for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to facilitate the needs of it’s female prison population.
If you are reading this you may have been made aware that Oklahoma is currently ranked number ONE for female incarceration per capita in the United States - a country that leads the developed world in incarcerating it’s own citizens.
Despite the fact that Oklahoma’s crime rate is average - ranked 17th nationally - their female incarceration rate (134 per 100,000) has peaked at over twice the national average for women (60 per 100,000).
Nearly 70% of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women are non-violent offenders, their presence in Oklahoma Correctional Facilities largely attributable to drug abuse, the distribution of controlled substances, prostitution and property crimes.
As the director and producer, I was able to bring together students from various academic backgrounds, such as film, photography and women’s studies, to function as a tight-knit crew on the production of a film that would give voices to Oklahoma’s incarcerated women and their children. We were presented with the unique and fortunate opportunity of working alongside Dr. Sharp while making this film, and un-wavering support from Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections was due to her recommendation and assistance, as well as the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ expressed desire to improve the situations of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women.
According to Dr. Sharp’s research, approximately 60% of Oklahoma’s female prisoners have been the victims of sexual and physical abuse as children, over 90% have been the victims of domestic violence in their adult lives, and nearly all of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder related to these experiences.
Many of them remain untreated.
In addition, over half of the women in Oklahoma’s correctional facilities have less than a high school education, over half are mothers, and many of them are the heads of single-parent led households.
There has been a response to the phenomenon of increased female detention in the last few years. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections established the Division of Female Offender Operations in 2008, hoping to address the more complex needs presented by female corrections: drug counseling, reproductive and health services, financial support, education, and programs geared towards reintegration. But Oklahoma’s recent budget shortfalls have led to financial cuts across the state, and the DOC has seen an annual decline in support from state providers, making their responses less timely.
It costs Oklahoma approximately $24,000 per inmate, per year to sustain the current female incarceration rate. Millions of dollars could be saved if Oklahoma were to discontinue the practice of sentencing to prison those who commit non-violent drug related crimes by, instead, sending them through effective rehabilitative treatment, funding public education, and providing effective community care centers for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
When women who live below the poverty line aren’t given a means to a decent living or education, they often find themselves in abusive relationships with little or no personal power. To escape, many self-medicate with illegal drugs. They also engage in prostitution and the trafficking of drugs, either through the coercion of an abusive spouse, or out of necessity due to a lack of financial stability.
Domestic violence, reproductive rights, the feminization of poverty: words commonly used in the scholarly circles that study in-depth women’s human rights. But to the average reader, what do these words stand for? How do they translate to the public in a way that actually hits home?
The first thing we must all come to understand is that women’s human rights affect all human rights. Women are increasingly becoming the heads of single-parent led homes. To a large extent, they are responsible for supporting, nurturing and educating their children. The health of a mother determines the health of a child, future generations, and society at large.
When a mother is taken from a family, whether by death or incarceration, the ripple effects of her loss are felt by everyone and there is an added burden to her extended family, friends and community members. The lack of stability shifts itself outward.
Children with an incarcerated mother are also affected, and are twice as likely to end up in prison themselves. Their family life becomes unstable, their grades suffer, they experience higher rates of depression, and they struggle with the truth of their situation in a world that has turned a blind eye and a callous hand toward those who end up in prison.
Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate is a reflection of the standards set by state legislatures and policy makers who would rather ignore neglected parts of the state in favor of more lucrative areas of interest: state infrastructure, economic growth, the maintenance of the status quo, and occasional pandering to the conservative/christian base by passing anti-abortion legislation that is intrusive to a woman’s privacy.
WOMEN BEHIND BARS will take viewers inside Oklahoma state prisons, and face to face with the women we place there - women who struggle with the very real and often ignored issues I just outlined.
Please, follow our blog, there will be additional posts in the coming weeks, photos added, and videos uploaded.
For now, by reading, passing this link on to a friend, or asking questions you can make a difference.