Lived Experience of Students as Catalyst for Change

The experience of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system

Amy Curran
Nov 12, 2019 · 4 min read
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Tess Harjo is greeted by her grandmother Sally Taylor as she is released from Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center after having her sentence commuted by the state Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)

On November 4th Oklahoma commuted sentences for 527 formerly incarcerated individuals. While an incredible and compelling statistic, it is the stories of these 527 individuals that give it meaning. Indeed, our world is full of stories. From family histories to national narratives, the tales we tell are powerful and potent things. Ironically, we often treat stories as a matter for children — an entertainment mechanism or a bedtime activity — but then attempt to exclude the narratives of young people from our public discourse. In spite of that, listening to the life experience of students across Oklahoma may be the key to facing some of our most pressing challenges.

Criminal justice reform, has historically been a topic for “adults.” But young people are no less affected by the criminal justice system than the adults whom it concerns. Kristyona Shannon, a 12th grade student at U.S. Grant High School in South Oklahoma City, has experienced living with a parent who was incarcerated: “My dad is in prison, he got life…My mom was pregnant with me when my dad went to prison. He was affiliated and had been in trouble. Eventually, it all caught up with him. I talk to him sometimes and I saw him three years ago. It is hard for my family to take me to the prison because many of them are felons themselves. It’s been hard.”

I sat down in the US. Grant cafeteria to talk to Kristyona and two of her classmates, Destiny and Casey. Their class recently worked on a Generation Citizen project focused on mass incarceration. They knew that most of the students in their class had personal stories about living with an incarcerated loved one, but had no idea how similar many of those stories actually were. “When we did our research we found out Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the country,” Kristyona said, holding back tears. “And, I see a lot of my kind in prison. You know, black people.” For black Oklahomans, the incarceration rate is five times higher than white Oklahomans. Nearly 4 in 100 black men are incarcerated.

These statistics are devastating for families like Kristiyona who lose young men during their prime working age and are forced to make ends meet without them. Her story is as common as it is powerful. This is why, in the wake of Oklahoma’s historic commutation of 527 formerly incarcerated people, it is important to reflect on how crucial the ultimate goals of carceral reform and decarceration are for a just and equitable Oklahoma. 527 commutations means 527 more stories of families reunited and 527 fewer parents unable to support their families.

The joy of reunification between a former inmate and his/her family is undoubtedly cause for celebration. But it should equally incite some reflection on why we would allow a system to make it necessary in the first place. If we can commute 527 prisoners for crimes no longer deemed a felony, we can find empathy for the thousands more who find themselves behind bars for crimes they may not have committed or were disproportionately punished for simply by being born black or brown. We can find empathy for the young men and women who don’t even make it into the system because their lives are cut tragically short. And we can act: the commutations are a great first step and acknowledgment that so much more needs to be done in Oklahoma.

Hope for a more equitable justice system is common for our students, even if that hope is tempered by caution and fear. Oklahoma has seen a string of Criminal Justice reform legislation in the past three years. While the legislature has not passed any of the measures put before them, two legislative mandates brought to a vote of the people received overwhelming support. Unfortunately, the results have not been what students hoped. Far fewer people are being put in prison, but many are unable to afford the terms of their probation.

As the leader of a civics education program that invites students to learn about the government and systems change, I often meet skeptics who are not sure that students have the knowledge or maturity to pose viable solutions to problems in their community. Often, however, young people have to be knowledgeable and mature just to survive the systemic pressures that have brought about mass incarceration. They live and breathe the pressures of losing parents and siblings to over-incarceration, and as such, should be some of the first to give input in our policy discourses. Kristyona, her classmates, and Oklahoma’s 527 recently freed former inmates serve as powerful examples of how lived experience can and should inform our public policy. They stand as a testament to what is not only possible, but morally imperative. Listen to their stories.

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