Amina Benalioulhaj is obsessed with the intersection of women and prisons. These are the stars of the 21-year-old University of Oklahoma student’s documentary, Women Behind Bars, which focuses attention on Oklahoma’s failure to address the nation’s highest female incarceration rate.
Benalioulhaj says she was shocked into action when she learned of the state’s overcrowded women’s institutions.
“I decided I needed to do something to inform my peers and Oklahomans at large,” says Benalioulhaj.
Women are incarcerated at twice the national average in Oklahoma, including many for non-violent crimes, usually drug-related. Possession of small amounts of marijuana, for instance, could land a woman in jail in Oklahoma for a long time. In most states, it’s a minor offense.
Benalioulhaj distills personal stories into a powerful statement – no easy feat for a first-time filmmaker. Benalioulhaj financed the film herself to the tune of roughly $6,000. She taught herself the technical aspects of filmmaking. She and her crew relentlessly threw time and effort into the project.
It paid off. The film was an official selection at Oklahoma’s deadCenter Film Festival this year. But more importantly, its many screenings are raising awareness about the problem.
Benalioulhaj credits the work of Dr. Susan Sharp, an OU sociologist, for her inspiration. For more than 10 years, Sharp’s been following the lives of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women. Sharp’s work fired Benalioulhaj’s imagination – and gripped her conscience.
“I approached Dr. Sharp and asked her if I could use her research and if she could help me get my foot in the door with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. I wanted to document the experiences of these imprisoned women. She was open to the idea from the beginning and it took off from there,” she says.
At times Women Behind Bars goes beyond chronicling lives of its subjects to map the web of social problems caused by Oklahoma’s excessive female incarceration rate. When mothers go to prison, families implode. Many of these women are single mothers. After the gavel hits the bar, those women’s children are placed in the custody of the Department of Human Services and later in foster care. Massive disruptions like this aren’t conducive to the rigorous pursuit of an education. And uneducated kids are more likely to turn to crime.
The film hits the mark with its primary goal – raising awareness. But awareness alone doesn’t bring real world change. Change, says Benalioulhaj, will come when people pressure legislators to refine the laws that stuff women’s prisons beyond capacity. Less incarceration of non-violent female offenders would significantly reduce the state’s female prison population, she says.
Many of these women sit in jail cells for drug-related charges. Many of them will return to prison repeatedly unless the system treats the root problem – drug addiction. And, she says, Oklahoma’s high poverty rate exacerbates each and every one of these conditions.
Benalioulhaj’s interest in the subjects of her movie won’t end when the curtain comes down. She aspires to work directly with them after she graduates.
“My interest is yoga therapy. I would like to take that into the prisons and work with the women,” she says. “My hope is to provide emotional healing and therapy for them.”