The “unnatural” belief about Oklahoma’s female prisoners

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 03/23/2021, 8:30 AM
Edited: 03/25/2021, 1:15 PM
(TULSA, Okla.) The State of Oklahoma has reduced its incarceration numbers for both men and women thanks to decriminalization and mass commutations over the last couple of years, but laws that target women stayed the same. In 2018, Oklahoma was tied with Mississippi for the country’s second highest incarceration rate for men. Louisiana was number one. The state dropped to third place in 2019. Female incarceration was even worse. In 2018, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate for women in the country. 152 per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average. The next year, Oklahoma dropped to the number two spot behind Idaho, but still more than double the national average. Source: That was after 500 men and women in prison for felony drug possession and theft had their sentences commuted in 2019, following a retroactive decision by voters reduced the penalties for their crimes. Other laws, including one proven to punish women harsher than men, remain unchanged. A local advocate for justice-involved women tells VNN she made it her mission to find out why. Rhonda Bear is the founder of She Brews Coffee House. “Often the mom is charged with a stiffer sentence than the man,” Bear said. “So, when I’m asking the question across the state, why is that? Why does the woman get a stronger sentence? Bear said she started She Brews so community members would be able to get to know justice-involved women more personally, and discover they were more than just their criminal pasts. “They could be your sister,” Bear said. “Your aunt. Your neighbor.” She told us she believes criminal labels often make people sound worse than what they’ve done. Like a child neglect charge with a possible ten-year sentence for a mom leaving their child in the car to grab some groceries, when extreme heat or cold isn’t a factor. “Is it a bad idea?” Bear said. “Yes. Is that an extreme criminal behavior? Sometimes I don’t think so.” Instead, Bear believes Oklahoma’s justice system disproportionately punishes people living in poverty. Those forced to make difficult decisions to support their family on a daily basis. “The rich do not go to prison,” Bear said. “They may go to federal for tax evasion. But they don’t go to state prisons.” Bear said the average prison stay for women is ten months- no employment, no income, no money to bond out. Their children in state custody. Since public defender offices are overloaded with cases, the end goal is to move cases through and out of the system as quickly as possible, usually ending in a plea deal instead of a lengthy trial. And if the charge is failure to protect from abuse, a mom can find herself with a harsher sentence than the actual abuser. In 2020, a "60 Minutes" investigation found more than a dozen women received harsher punishments than the men who abused their kids because they “failed to protect them”. Meanwhile, half of those women were actually victims of abuse themselves. That same investigation found that 41 women were in prison for failure to protect, compared to just 16 men. Read more about Failure to Protect here: “Why does the woman get 25 years and the abuser receives 2 years in the county?” Bear said. “Because this is truth. And this has happened. And the response I have gotten more than once is: women are born to nurture. And men are born to hunt and kill. So, when a man is more violent, it’s really less criminal, because it’s more of his nature. But since the women is born to nurture, when she fails to nurture or protect, it’s actually more criminal than his abuse.” Bear idolized her father growing up. It didn’t matter that his friends were hitmen in the mob. Then she grew up to choose crime and drugs over her kids, just like he did. It was the impact her lifestyle had on her children that eventually led Bear to take the right path, and carve out a path for other mothers to take. Bear told us their program has a success rate between 75 and 80 percent. Over the last 14 years, just 10 percent of the women they have helped returned to prison. She says more often their mothers relapse on drugs, but they are helped back into recovery. “We house you,” Bear said. “We give you mentors. We teach you finances. We teach you all kinds of options. We partner with educational institutions to help you get educated. And we walk with you. And what we find is, when we invest in a life. It earns dividends. We see lasting results.” All for the cause of saving Oklahoma children. “Because I do think that women have been given excessive sentences,” Bear said. “And I do believe that children are the ones who pay the price. “How long does it continue? And who will help break the cycle?” This story is part of VNN’s Community Voices Project, a new video series designed to covering the full story of crime news and emphasize the narrative of the community when dealing with crime and other community issues.


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