Black and white photos shot with a 35mm film camera lined two walls, giving viewers a glimpse into daily prison life in the early ’90s.
Some were of men jogging or working out, while others showed illegal activity in the facility such as a handful of pills just smuggled in or inmates getting tattooed. The photos, shot by an Oklahoma ex-convict, were displayed Sunday at the West Wind Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Norman during a dual prison event.
The event featured the prison photography exhibit, accompanied by Quaker John Fletcher’s presentation about mass incarceration.
The felon, who asked not to be named, has been out on parole for about two years after a 1980 conviction of first-degree murder. He took the photos as part of a photography program offered at the prison in the early ’90s. He said the photos were a result of about two years of work, first being shown in 1992.
Only half of them were on display Sunday because the other half had been damaged in a fire. However, he said he still has the negatives for all of the photos.
At the time the photos were taken, he said an agreement was made with the warden that any illegal activity caught on film would not result in further punishment. The faces of those participating in the illegal activity were not pictured and they didn’t need to be in order to understand the photo. Inmates whose faces were shown signed photo releases for the project, which the whole facility quickly became aware of, he said.
The second part of the event showed statistic after statistic of the rise of mass incarceration and Oklahoma’s particular problem with mass incarceration, as presented by Fletcher. Some of the information presented was from Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow”.
Incarceration began to escalate while President Richard Nixon was in office from 1969 to 1974 after he declared a verbal war on drugs. There were 17 campaign speeches on law and order, according to Alexander.
It continued with President Ronald Reagan in 1986 when the federal “crack” cocaine law was initiated. Fletcher said while crack and powder cocaine were essentially the same thing, the penalty was about 100 times different. The author argued that the punishment was different because black people primarily used crack and white people used powder cocaine and the intent was to control the former race’s population, he said.
Reagan also started mandatory sentencing and plea bargaining, Fletcher added.
President Bill Clinton then added life sentences for three-time offenders, which contributed to mass incarceration, as well as a $30 billion crime bill.
Other contributing factors included changes in the federal budget. The FBI, Department of Defense and Drug Enforcement and Administration anti-drug foundations all saw extremely large budget increases, while the Department of Education budget suffered.
Fletcher also had nationwide statistics showing a majority of drug users being Caucasian while the majority of people in state prisons for drug-related offenses were black.
Taking a look at Oklahoma, it is ranked No. 1 in the nation for women incarceration and No. 3 for men incarceration rates.
“Oklahoma was two times the national average for women’s incarceration (in the 1980s) and nothing has changed,” Fletcher said.
The condition of the women at the time of incarceration and after incarceration was also looked at in the presentation. Seventy percent of the women have mental health problems, 65 percent have chemical addiction such as drugs or alcohol, 60 percent are functionally illiterate, 85 percent are unemployed, 60 percent are nonviolent offenders and 85 percent of them have children.
“How does the state handle those children? For the most part they’re ignored,” Fletcher said, adding that most children whose mother has been incarcerated are more likely to end up incarcerated themselves.
Fletcher said people need to be looking at how much correction is actually going on while these inmates, both women and men, are incarcerated. Many will acquire additional debt and then be barred from many forms of employment after they are released, he said.
People are saying there needs to be more space for the ever-growing number of inmates Fletcher said, but will private prisons change this? Simply put, no. He said private prisons only handle non-violent offenders who can easily be handled and are mainly prisons for profit.
There are some politicians providing leadership to change incarceration rates being “smart on crime” rather than “tough on crime” which may help, he said.
“It all boils down to voting and who we are supporting,” Fletcher said.
Cleveland County’s Second Chance Access Pilot (S-CAP) program was also briefly discussed. The program was designed to decrease recidivism rates for women in Cleveland County by assisting them with education services, advocating for them and navigating them.
While it was funded during its first two years by federal grant money and then added to the Sheriff department’s budget its third year, this year it has been dropped from the budget and many people in the community are trying to keep it afloat, Fletcher said.
The program has been effective, showing that only 8 percent of women returned to jail after the first year. Normally 70 percent of women return to jail after the first year of being initially arrested, he said.
Reducing that number also saves the community money because without the program, more women would return to jail taking more taxpayer dollars.
For more information about the S-CAP program, visit secondchanceadvocacyprogram.org.