Nonprofit aims to show film on women’s incarceration in all counties before November elections

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Female Tulsa Jail inmates take part in “Poetic Justice.” Courtesy photo
The documentary begins with a poem and a montage of women in khaki prison uniforms standing in front of a bookcase in a penitentiary.

“I am an inmate. My name is ‘Offender,'” a woman reciting the poem says. ” My number is six. The number in thousands of women incarcerated in our state.”

The film “Grey Matter,” explores women’s experiences with incarceration in Oklahoma and their journeys with Poetic Justice, a nonprofit that operates writing workshops in five state jails and prisons.

Ellen Stackable, executive director of Poetic Justice, has an ambitious goal: To show the 22-minute documentary in each of Oklahoma’s 77 counties before elections kick off in November.

“Part of it is, it’s (the documentary has) got a double focus,” Stackable said. “We realized as we were getting into it, we didn’t want it to be just about Poetic Justice, we wanted it to be about the incarceration of women in Oklahoma.

“And because I think if you see a person, it’s harder to put that person away than if you see a number.”

Oklahoma has led the nation in women’s incarceration for 25 years. The state imprisons 151 out of every 100,000 women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics — more than double the national rate.

“The interesting part about this issue is, you know if you’re a fiscal conservative, this is insane what we’re doing,” Stackable said. “And if you’re somebody who might be considered a social justice liberal, it’s wrong, too.

“So that’s why, I kind of feel like Oklahoma is on a razor’s edge. We can either increase our incarceration rate exponentially and see more and more consequences from that, or we can change.”

“Grey Matter” features state leaders, incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated women and prison employees.

When the film debuted at Tulsa’s Circle Cinema in November 2017, Stackable said there were two questions: “Why are so many women in Oklahoma incarcerated?” and “What can we do?”

The questions inspired the documentary tour, dubbed “Into the Heartland.” Stackable said she hopes the film has an impact especially in rural towns, and sways legislators to consider criminal justice reform and changes their perspectives on incarceration.

In 2016, after failed attempts to push reforms through at the state Capitol, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform took the issue to the people for a vote. When those ballot initiatives were approved, some lawmakers pushed back and filed bills to repeal the reforms.

Oklahoma’s prisons are at 112 percent capacity, and the state’s Department of Corrections is asking for more than $1.53 billion in state funding next fiscal year.

“So my vision was, what if you got influencers from each of those counties and you showed it, and even if you had 25 to 100 people who came, could that make a difference?”

A portrait of an incarcerated women that is shown at Poetic Justice’s screenings of “Grey Matter.”

The documentary is not yet available online.

“There’s something about seeing real people and answering real questions with real people that’s even more impactful,” Stackable said.

After each screening, Stackable, the filmmakers and sometimes a formerly incarcerated woman host a Q-&-A. Audience members also can see portraits of women who wrote the poems and buy a poetry journal.

Poetic Justice, which launched in 2014, hosts writing workshops aimed to empower women affected by incarceration and encourages them to express themselves through poems and letters.

The next screening is Friday at She Brews Coffee House in Claremore — the second county the documentary has been shown in. It will play again at Magic City Books in Tulsa on Jan. 27. Details for future showings of the documentary can be found on Poetic Justice’s Facebook.

Those interested in hosting an event can contact the organization on Facebook or email poeticjusticeokla@gmail.com.

“Sometimes documentaries have this really nice wrapping of all the loose ends and you walk away and you feel real happy about life and yourself,” Stackable said. “And then sometimes documentaries are just a little too long to where you feel like you were kind of beaten down.

“I think this one you walk away and you feel like something needs to change. And my hope is that out of this, there will be change in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.”

Related reading:

Let down and locked up: Why Oklahoma’s female incarceration is so high

For women in jail, poetry program a ‘healing experience’

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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