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Bar examination

University of Oklahoma students go to prison for the documentary ‘Women Behind Bars.’

Emily Summars September 21st, 2011

Oklahoma ranks No. 1 in not only football, but for incarcerating females — 132 women per every 100,000 people in 2009. The national average is 68, according to a state Department of Corrections report.

“You read the statistics, you interview educators about it, people who are in positions of authority, but not until you’re in the actual prisons do you see what’s going on,” said Cassie Ketrick, associate producer and assistant editor of the documentary “Women Behind Bars,” made by several University of Oklahoma students and graduates.

In the film, director, producer and editor Amina Benalioulhaj uses the stories of incarcerated women, children and the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program to illustrate OU sociology professor Susan Sharp’s research on the subject. The filmmakers wanted to do more than regurgitate facts, so they went straight to the source: the inmates themselves.

“It’s easy to be judgmental about a nebulous, undefined them, but when you see real people … when you see real children crying because they have to leave their mom, I think that gets the point across,” Sharp said.

About 45 minutes long, the film focuses on the work of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars as it accompanies the children on their two-hour monthly visit to see their mothers.

“These kids are angry,” said Sheila Harbert, chief community outreach officer for Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma. “They’re realizing Mom didn’t have to sell drugs so they could eat. Incarceration affects everyone, not just the poor.”

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is a national initiative to help girls cope with the separation from a parent and develop, despite the struggles. Harbert said her goal is to keep these children from following their mothers’ footsteps.

“The program is producing leaders in Oklahoma, and they’re not going to prison, because we’re shaking it up,” she said. “The child may be waiting (for Mom), but her life is steadily going forward. She’s going through puberty, she’s changing her hairstyle, she’s still moving; life isn’t on hold.”

Harbert said most women in prison are dealing with drug addiction or mental health issues. Most of them are mothers, the breadwinner of the fam ily and were physically and/or sexually abused during childhood.

“When they go to prison, they think it’s the best thing that ever happened to them,” Harbert said. “How can you think going to prison is the best way to get off drugs?” Ketrick said the experience of shooting the documentary was “eye-opening.” “Yeah, people did things wrong, but they didn’t deserve to be there, in my opinion, for as long as they were,” she said.

Ketrick referenced an interviewee who said she received 20-plus years in prison for intent to distribute a controlled substance. Sharp said Oklahoma has three women doing life sentences without parole for delivery or conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance. Ketrick said she wonders, in the long term, what this accomplishes.

“A lot of them do not get their children back because of policies, so the children end up in the system, and that’s like breeding a new group to incarcerate in 10 years,” Sharp said.

The documentary debuted at this summer’s deadCENTER Film Festival. For more information, visit wbbtf.

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09.21.2011 at 10:24 Reply

Thanks, OK Gazette. As the director, I am very proud of the work our crew was able to produce. It wasn't easy, but well worth it. Our primary goal is simply to spread the word about this issue - because an informed public is an empowered public.

We'd love it if you guys could fix the link at the bottom of this article: our actual website is - this way you can check out more footage and some pictures on set!


09.26.2011 at 09:43 Reply

Thank you OK Gazette for the coverage, and also to the very talented writer, Emily Summars!