By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
On Tuesday, April 19, a panel discussion will be held in which local community leaders will present their views on the topic of “Mass Incarceration in Oklahoma: When Will It End?” The event will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m., at First Christian Church of Oklahoma City, at 3701 N. Walker Ave.
Ranking below Louisiana, Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the United States and it continues to grow annually, while prison populations nationwide have fallen each year since 2009.
Oklahoma has had the highest incarceration rate for women since 2011 and incarcerates women at more than twice the national rate. The Sooner state also has the highest rate of prisoners housed in private prisons.
Panelists will include Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives Kris Steele and Rev. Jesse Jackson, pastor of East Sixth Street Christian Church.
Prater has been the Oklahoma County DA since 2007. He served as an Assistant District Attorney in Oklahoma County from 1993 through 2001 and as an officer in the Norman Police Department from 1980 through 1988.
Steele is Executive Director of TEEM (The Education and Employment Ministry), a nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration in Oklahoma. Steele served in the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 2001-2012 and as Speaker of the House in 2011-2012. He is the leader of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a coalition of community groups that seeks to get two initiative petitions on the November ballot; the petitions seek reduction of sentences for drug possession and property crimes and community treatment for drug addiction and mental health.
Rev. Jackson is the President of the National Convocation of the Christian Church, a national organization of African-American Disciples of Christ. Last summer Jackson organized an initiative called Occupy the Corners–OKC to curb gun violence in northeast Oklahoma City.
Rev. Don Heath, pastor of Edmond Trinity Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will moderate the program.
Approximately 28,000 adults are presently incarcerated in Oklahoma. Another 31,000 adults are under community supervision (probation and parole). Oklahoma’s prison population in 1983 was 7,000.
According to Joe Allbaugh, the new Interim Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the state needs to close some of its prisons
On the job since January, Allbaugh told Tulsa World reporter Barbara Hoberock last February, “We are going to have to close some facilities, and that is going to cause a lot of pain, particularly with people who don’t believe their facility should be at risk. Some facilities aren’t safe for staff, offenders or administrators, and “it is just a matter of time before we have a serious incident.”
Allbaugh went on to say that Oklahoma prisons have capital needs in excess of $750 million.
“Our criminal justice system in Oklahoma is broken,” Heath said. “Mass incarceration is destroying thousands of lives and families. We hope through this panel discussion to discuss the extent of the problem, how we got here and how we end it.”
The event is free and open to the public.
Sponsors include the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, VOICE OKC, Respect Diversity Foundation, Center for Conscience in Action, Peace House Oklahoma City, United Nations Association of Greater Oklahoma City, Campaign Nonviolence, Restoration Church at the Dome and Edmond Trinity Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
For more information, call Don Heath at 405-348-8019, or visit edmondtrinity.org.