By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
As Ryan Kiesel approaches his second year as Executive Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, the ride so far has been a busy one.
Prior to joining the ACLU-OK staff, Kiesel served three terms in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and was in private practice with a local law firm. He currently also teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
“I think that we have demonstrated ourselves to be the preeminent defender of civil liberties and civil rights in the state of Oklahoma,” Kiesel said. “We’ve done that at the Capitol, at the court house and we’ve done it in the public arena. When the ACLU shows up on a particular case, or issue, people take notice.
“They know we’re bringing a highly professional Oklahoma staff along with resources we get from our affiliates in the other 49 states and from our partnership with our national organization in New York and Washington DC.”
Kiesel added, “We’re unique in our ability to address issues from so many different perspectives, be it legal, political, communications or organizing. I think that makes us a very powerful organization.”
Located at 3000 Paseo Drive in Oklahoma City, ACLU-OK was established in 1964 and opened its first headquarters in 1973.
The staff consists of Brady Henderson, Legal Advisor; Allie Shinn, Development Coordinator; Forrest Bennett, Contract Lobbyist; Bryan Newell, Office Manager; Deisy Escalera, Latino Community Organizer, along with OU Law School interns, Hayley Jones and Randi Harden.
Kiesel said, “Over the next several years, our members and the people of Oklahoma will see the ACLU commit itself to criminal justice reform in our state. We see problems in everything from school, to a prison pipeline, to policing practices, to the judicial system, to corrections, to reentry. The entire range of the justice system screams for reform and it touches on so many other civil liberties issues.”
Kiesel sees incarceration in Oklahoma as a generational issue.
“We believe an evidence based criminal justice system can remedy a lot of the state budget woes, and at the same time make us safer as a state by truly investing in our people.
“When you look at Gov. Fallin’s record with the Department of Corrections, I think what you see is a systematic effort to undermine the DOC’s and the State’s role in incarcerating individuals.
“I suspect that the motive behind that is to make it an easier political task to convince the legislators to further privatize our prison system and move further toward a for profit criminal justice system.”
Kiesel continued, “Of the 26,000 people incarcerated in the State of Oklahoma, a large percentage are individuals who should have never been incarcerated in the first place.
Twenty-six percent of Oklahoma inmates are in for profit facilities.
Henderson said, “We’ve been looking at the criminal justice system as a whole, but particularly with an increased focus on profit and privatization at the expense of justice and intervention into people’s lives.
“Our system now is set up to pipeline many of those individuals into larger crimes and into prisons. When you’re talking about folks that are small time offenders our system should be set up to help those people, somebody who has made a mistake, had trouble with their finances, or made some bad choices.”
Kiesel said, “It comes back to the idea that whether you’re a prison warden, or a prosecutor or a police officer, no decision that you make should ever be tainted by what it means for your budget. That decision should seek justice.”
ACLU-OK experienced one of its biggest successes during the 2012 legislative session.
“We played a key role in defeating the Personhood legislation that would have defined life at conception,” Kiesel stated. “It was one of the most dangerous bills to women’s reproductive health. Along with our allies, we played a key role in making sure that the bill died in the House.
“Then, along with the Center for Reproductive Rights co-counsel, we led the litigation in Oklahoma that ultimately went to the State Supreme Court and was appealed to the US Supreme Court.”
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The groups also successfully sued to keep the proposed initiative off the election ballot.
Kiesel says this is no time for them to rest on their laurels. The ACLU has a full roster of current battles.
“We have ongoing litigation against Gov. Mary Fallin challenging her assertion of executive privilege to allow her not to release certain documents dealing with the State’s participation in the Federal Healthcare Exchange,” Kiesel said.
Patrick Riley, of the Lost Ogle blog wrote, “I wish I knew some rich lawyers that would help me challenge this.”
Kiesel said, “I called Patrick and said we’re not rich, but we are lawyers and we are interested in this.
“This is much more than a matter of transparency. When people in power try to manufacture smoke screens that prevent the public from having full and complete knowledge of the workings of their government, it’s important to stand up and challenge that.”
ACLU is now representing The Lost Ogle in a lawsuit against the Governors Office to release the public information.
They anticipate that the court will deny this assertion of executive privilege.
“It doesn’t exist in Oklahoma law,” Kiesel said. “It’s troubling that anyone rising to that level of power would then try to act in a way to consolidate power and information, and keep it away from the public.”
ACLU-OK is leading the way on issues regarding technology and privacy including cell phone tracking, warrantless surveillance by drones and license plate data collecting.
“We’ve been working with Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, one of the most conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma, to push privacy legislation,” said Kiesel.
Another strange bedfellow for the ACLU is Sooner Tea Party leader Al Gerhart. He was recently arrested and charged with blackmail for an email he sent to a state senator, which he called “confrontational politics.”
Henderson said, “We’re going to weigh in on the First Amendment issue in that case.”
This month ACLU-OK plans to file its case against the State of Oklahoma asking for the removal of the Ten Commandments monument at the State Capitol.
The group also has two groundbreaking Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) cases. ACLU-OK is working for resolution of a transgender name change case filed in Oklahoma County and another case involves custody rights of non-biological gay and lesbian parents.
Allie Shinn said, “I’m telling the ACLU story to raise funds to continue the work that we’re doing. We have a great team of supporters here in Oklahoma. We also get their input on where they think we should be going – their opinion is very important to us.”
“And we’re trying to grow our membership,” Kiesel said, “I look at the ACLU as an opportunity to give to a cause that’s not dependent on any election.
“For those folks who are looking for an investment in something that is much more long term, that’s going to have an impact beyond any administration, any majority, then I ask them to consider supporting the work we’re doing here at the ACLU.”
The ACLU of Oklahoma is one of 53 affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union. Founded in 1920, the national not-for-profit, non-partisan, voluntary organization works to protect rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
“I think that I have the best job in the state of Oklahoma,” said Kiesel. “It’s a privilege and an honor to work here. Coming up to my second year in this position we have a lot going on.”
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.acluok.org.
ACLU stays active protecting the rights of Oklahomans
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