Women behind Bars: The Voices of Oklahoma's Incarcerated Women and Their Children. Directed by Amina Benalioulhaj. Norman: Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oklahoma, 2012. 42 minutes.

The Grey Area: Feminism behind Bars. Directed by Noga Ashkenazi. New York: Women Make Movies, 2012. 65 minutes.

Reviewed by Meda Chesney-Lind

The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, but it houses almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.1 Oklahoma is unique in a nation committed to incarceration, since their female incarceration rate stands at 136 per 100,000, which is more than double the U.S. average of 65 per 100,000.2 Criminologist Susan Sharp opens Women behind Bars by saying a colleague told her that this is because “Oklahoma has some mean women.” Is this really the case?

Women behind Bars answers that question in the most powerful of ways, and in the course of doing so also brings the viewer inside the walls of a typical women’s prison, making the story far larger than an Oklahoman one. The opening sequence shows a First Christian Church bus coming to take home the children of women housed at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility in Taft, Oklahoma. What starts as a benign playground with mothers and children, some with their faces joyfully painted, devolves into a wrenching sequence as the children, some sobbing, some resigned, are pulled from their mothers, pushed out of the prison gate, and loaded onto a bus under the watchful eye of uniformed prison guards.

Viewers are then introduced to a series of young (and not so young) women who tell us of the staggering sentences they have received, virtually all for nonviolent crimes. One young woman with two children, ages 6 and 9, tells of having received a twenty-two-year sentence, even though it was her first offense. We also meet some astonishing and charismatic individuals, like Sheila Harbert, who runs the Girls Scouts Beyond Bars Program. Others like Justin Jones, head of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, are anything but enthusiastic about the fact that Oklahoma excels on what he describes as the “misery scale,” which refers to the state’s high rates of people grappling with systemic issues like illiteracy, school dropout, and the lack of health care.

At the end of the film, after seeing the faces (many nonwhite) of incarcerated women, we return to visiting day. This time, though, in the foreground, we are given the statistics regarding the characteristics of women in Oklahoma prisons. Among other things, we learn that in Oklahoma, more than 28,000 children are displaced by the incarceration of a parent, that virtually all the women in the state are doing time for drug-related offenses, and that 80 percent are also mothers. Like many women in prisons that are increasingly designed for “punishment,” they rarely have access to treatment. And many of them will return to prison (often for drug relapse), since upon release even more misery will have been heaped onto them as a result of being a felon, including exclusion from public housing, loss of voting rights, and a stigma that often makes them virtually unemployable. Furthermore, as this well-crafted and perfectly timed video poignantly observes, all they can think about is reuniting with their children.

The Grey Area opens with a somewhat stilted conversation about feminism in a moving car involving three young female students from Grinnell College. They are on their way to teach a course on feminism at the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa, as part of the Grinnell Liberal Arts in Prison Program. Each week, the class meets to ponder such items as “motherhood,” “body and sexuality,” “domestic violence and sexual abuse,” and the “impact of feminism.” In addition to following class discussions at the facility, the film includes appearances by Michael Kimmel, a sociologist known for his work on masculinity, and interview clips with Stephanie Covington, an expert on gender responsive programming in corrections.

Fortunately, the filmmaker begins profiling some of this group of largely white women (and their crimes). These interviews powerfully describe the gendered aspects of the murders they committed. Tracey, who was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 17, set the family house on fire in an attempt to kill the man who had abused her. He survived, but her two siblings did not. Other women, in horribly abusive relationships with hyperviolent men, face long sentences because they became involved in crimes these men often initiated. For example, one incarcerated woman, Andrea, said of her abuser, “He put needles in my arm and took away my life. He’s why I’m here.”

A bit more problematic are the “classes” in which discussion of “the personal is political” and “privilege” that may make sense at Grinnell seemed almost painfully awkward in a women’s prison. Oddly, though, some of this works, as the women prisoners said, revealingly, that for them prison was a sort of privilege, since they had to “come to prison to be safe.” The film also feels long, and drags a bit. It would be hard to show an hour-long film in most classes and still have time for much discussion.

That said, as the students learn more about the lives of the women in prison, the classes become much more animated and less forced. A wrenching ending also transforms the film’s message about the correctional system’s inability to comprehend the connection between women’s victimization and women’s crime—the grey area—in a way that translates into true justice.

1 Adam Liptak, “U.S. Prison Population Dwarfs Other Nations,” New York Times, 23 April, 2008, accessed June 26, 2014.

2 U.S. Department of Justice, Prisoners in 2013, by E. Ann Carson, NCJ 247282 (Washington, D.C.: United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014), 7.

Meda Chesney-Lind, Ph.D., teaches women’s studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Nationally recognized for her work on women and crime, her testimony before Congress resulted in national support of gender-responsive programming for girls in the juvenile justice system.  Her award winning book Girls, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), written with Randall Shelden, just went into its fourth edition.