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In the heartland of America, where justice should be blind and fair, a crisis is unfolding. The state of Oklahoma faces an impending catastrophe if meaningful criminal justice reform does not take root within the hallowed chambers of the State Capital. It is a call to action that resonates far beyond the plains of this state; it is a call for the nation to witness, understand, and join hands in the pursuit of justice.
A Glimmer of Hope
In August 2016, Oklahoma’s Governor, Mary Fallin, took a significant step by establishing the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Task Force. The task force was entrusted with the monumental mission of overhauling the state’s prison system. Six months later, on February 2, 2017, Governor Fallin unveiled the task force’s recommendations, laying bare the gravity of the situation.
“Oklahoma is in a crisis,” she declared, “our prisons are bursting at the seams, with the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country and the highest for women. Without reform, our prison population will surge by a harrowing 25%, necessitating the construction of three new prisons.”
However, the notable absence of African-Americans in Governor Fallin’s task force is a disconcerting oversight. This omission is particularly troubling when one considers that African-Americans constitute 7.6% of Oklahoma’s population, yet minorities account for a staggering 46.1% of the state’s prison inmates. Disturbingly, racial bias appears entrenched within Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, as evidenced by the disproportionate denial of parole to minority inmates.
The Imperative of Reform
Prison reform is not just a moral imperative but a fiscal necessity. If Oklahoma were to enact substantive changes allowing nonviolent offenders alternatives to incarceration through innovative programs, the state would experience a remarkable reduction in its prison population. This, in turn, would provide much-needed economic relief, alleviating the burdens placed upon African-American and minority communities disproportionately affected by these statistics.
Oklahoma’s prison system epitomizes dysfunction on an alarming scale. More than half of the state’s inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, pushing its incarceration rate a daunting 78% above the national average, securing it the unenviable second-highest incarceration rate in the United States. Most egregiously, Oklahoma claims the ignominious title of the “Female-incarceration Capital of the United States,” imprisoning twice as many women as any other state.
Private Prison Influence
Compounding the crisis is the unsettling presence of private, for-profit prison corporations. Oklahoma hosts three facilities managed by the nation’s largest private prison companies, including the GEO Group, Inc. and the Corrections Corporation of America. These behemoth corporations collectively generate annual revenues of $3.3 billion, utilizing their substantial financial muscle to influence state and federal policies through formidable lobbying efforts.
While some state lawmakers express concerns about potential job losses in rural districts, it is essential to recognize that the prison-industrial complex presents a unique conundrum. Citizens in these areas often come to rely on it for their livelihoods, making dismantling the system a formidable challenge. Currently, 300 Oklahomans earn their living working for these private prison companies.
The Political Quagmire
Adding another layer to the complexity of reform, both the GEO Group, Inc. and Corrections Corporation of America are not merely employers but also wield considerable political clout. Contributions totaling $35,000 to Governor Fallin’s 2015 campaign and an additional $5,000 for her 2015 Oklahoma Speaker’s Ball were reportedly made by these private prison giants. Furthermore, GEO Group, Inc. has channeled over $176,000 to Oklahoma politicians between 2008 and 2015, cementing their influence.
In this labyrinthine web of interests, the Trump administration, poised to usher in federal prison reforms, could have set an example for states. However, the profit-driven prison industry extends its lobbying prowess beyond state politics. A striking example is the administration’s acceptance of a $250,000 donation for the inauguration from GEO Group, Inc. Such corporate influence on policy-making raises pertinent questions.
Can Oklahomans place their trust in Governor Fallin and her “Task Force” to drive reform in a system financially intertwined with entities like GEO Group, Inc. and Corrections Corporation of America? Does the governor or her task force hold financial stakes in these companies? Does she feel a moral obligation to represent all constituents, especially minorities who face a disproportionate likelihood of conviction?
The urgency of criminal justice reform in Oklahoma cannot be overstated. The state stands at a crossroads, and its choices will reverberate beyond its borders. As we scrutinize the tangled web of interests that entangle this noble cause, we must demand transparency, equity, and accountability. For Oklahoma, and indeed the nation, the time for reform is now.