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UNITED THEY STOOD: The rally to end mass incarceration

Oct 10, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

Mass incarceration is loosely defined as a system in which non-violent or low risk offenders, mostly drug offenders or those with mental health issues are given excessive sentences. When those citizens are punished without rehabilitation, they are more likely to re-offend or, because of their record, cannot obtain jobs to pay their fines and therefore return to the system like a revolving door.
America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, and State Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Forest Park) said things have to change.“America has 5 percent of the world’s population but we have 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated.

Mindy Ragan Wood | October 3, 2014

 

OKLAHOMA CITY — Yesterday afternoon supporters turned out on the steps of the state capitol to make their voices heard regarding mass incarceration, what they believe is a crippling fiscal crisis and a destructive human trend.

 

Mass incarceration is loosely defined as a system in which non-violent or low risk offenders, mostly drug offenders or those with mental health issues are given excessive sentences. When those citizens are punished without rehabilitation, they are more likely to re-offend or, because of their record, cannot obtain jobs to pay their fines and therefore return to the system like a revolving door.

 

America has the world’s highest incarceration rate, and State Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Forest Park) said things have to change.

 

“America has 5 percent of the world’s population but we have 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated. Incarceration for the U.S. dipped for the third year in a row but Oklahoma’s prison population increased by 3.4 percent,” Johnson said. “This is an unsustainable system. We cannot punish our way into prosperity.”

 

People Can Change

 

Advocates for judicial reform said the solution to ending mass incarceration is to fund educational and rehabilitative programs for low level criminals and non-violent offenders. As proof of that hope, former ex-felon and author, Dixie Pebworth said he’s proof rehabilitative programs work. As an at risk youth on the streets with little supervision, he turned to crime to survive.

 

“Society wanted to throw me away,” Pebworth said. He took advantage of tools available to many prisoners twenty years ago and left prison in 1994 with a business degree and completed a Bible school program. He is currently the director of Wings of Freedom, one of the state’s largest faith-based community living centers for families seeking sobriety.

 

Pebworth said while violent offenders who don’t rehabilitate should remain behind bars, the state’s approach to nonviolent offenders has to change and so does its philosophy. “Prison should not be about punishment. It should be about correction.”

 

John Pearson, founder of the OKC Public Safety/Justice Policy Council agreed. “There’s a lot of good people in prison. There’s some bad people, but there’s a lot of good people. In Oklahoma, we lock them both up.”

 

As of Tuesday’s Facts-At-A-Glance on ODOC’s website, 51.7 percent of the prison populationare nonviolent offenders.

 

A corrections officer from Oklahoma State Reformitory, Corporal Timothy Blaylock also supported the event.

 

“There are a lot of people in prison who shouldn’t be there and any officer will tell you that,” noting that too often prisoners should be in drug treatment or mental health programs,” he said. “With the budget cuts, they can’t provide the mental health care these people need. The medical care is inadequate.”

 

The Politics of Underfunded Reform and Rehabilitation

 

Pearson added that here is little rehabilitation for prisoners now.

 

“They don’t even have enough rehab to make it part of their sentence even when the judge said they have to have it,” Pearson said.

 

State Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Slaughterville) said the problems in ODOC are not the fault of the governor or corrections staff but the legislature who, regardless of political party have underfunded the department. “This is not a Republican issue. This is not a Democrat issue. This is a right (from wrong) issue. The legislature needs to do more to properly fund corrections and stop legislation that overburdens the system. We don’t put enough money in corrections, we don’t provide enough mental health and substance abuse services to prisoners, and we put too many people in prison for way too long.

 

Sen. Johnson accused Gov. Mary Fallin of playing politics. In our June report on the criminal justice system, we reported that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) which passed in 2012 has remained largely unfunded. Although Fallin has said recently that she supports JRI, failure to fund it seemed to confuse those who support a bill which is proven to slash prison populations and costs.

 

“Gov. Fallin flip-flopped on the JRI, then now she’s flip-flopped again, and when the legislature is back in session I feel sure she’ll flip flop again.”

 

Johnson also said “prison profiteering” should be against the law and called the judicial crisis, “the scheme of mass incarceration.”

 

Local activist and filmographer, Mark Faulk outright accused Fallin of playing politics as well, saying those who make high sentencing laws which keep people in prison longer support the governor openly. “People, ALEC gave Mary Fallin the Thomas Jefferson Award. (ALEC are) the ones behind the war on drugs, the war on crime, and tough on crime laws. We’re not going to get this (reform) done with Fallin.” ALEC is the influential American Legislative Exchange Council.

 

The Human Cost of Tough on Crime

 

Coordinator for the Rally to End Mass Incarceration, Tonya Saugey, held up posters picturing offenders who are in prison for life for drug offenses. One by one she told their stories. “Some of them claim they remain innocent behind bars …

and a numner will be featured as subjects in the acclaimed documentary, “The House I Live In.” Larry Yarbrough was convicted on drug possession charges but received life without parole, a sentence that many agree is for murders and sadistic killers who are a threat to public safety.

 

Faulk said Yarbrough’s only mistake was attracting African Americans and Hispanics to his popular Bar-B-Que restaurant in a racist town.

 

“There’s clear evidence they planted cocaine on him,” Faulk said. “His only crime was that he was a successful black man in a racist town, one of the most racist towns in Oklahoma – Kingfisher.”

 

Yarbrough’s family described him as the patriarch of their family and the man they all turned to when they needed help or advice. Ben Mosely, who Saugey said is number five on the most deserving of clemency list, who was sentenced to life without parole on a drug charge because of tough on crime laws.

 

Leland Dodd, is the first person in Oklahoma to serve a life without parole sentence on a marijuana charge. Cecil Rodriguez, whose family said her drug habit lead her to steal a purse, is also serving life without parole for a nonviolent offense.

 

Brady Henderson, of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, empathized with loved ones of the severely punished saying that the impact on their children and grandchildren affects entire communities. The system of mass incarceration, he said, is self-defeating because even those offenders who are released have little chance of finding a job, housing, or the tools they need to reintegrate society. The result is whole communities who are trapped in poverty.

 

Several speakers, including Cleveland, Johnson, and Henderson, agreed Oklahomans have to hold their elected officials responsible and work as a community to help those who suffer with the scourge of a felony record.

 

“Fundamentally, mass incarceration is our government doing all the wrong things to its own citizens, but it’s we as neighbors doing all the wrong things to our neighbors. If we work together, we can change things,” said Henderson of the ACLU.

 

United They Stood

 

Demonstrators held up posters of loved ones and signs that read, “If the risk is low, you must let them go.”

 

There seems to be unity within prison as well. Kevin Ott and Larry Yarbrough, both serving harsh sentences at Oklahoma State Reformitory, made up 2,000 flyers for the rally and with the help of fellow inmates, mailed them to their families.

 

Although the crowd numbered only around 60 people, their united front and impassioned pleas sent a clear message that they will continue to raise awareness and make their voices heard come Election Day.

 

Later in October, Cleveland will publish an internal study on the way Oklahoma incarcerates prisoners. It’s one more hope supporters have to raise awareness about what they believe is human and fiscal epidemic.

 

Watch for updates here on Red Dirt Report.

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