Student's documentary explores state's incarceration of women
While we are watching our tuition go up due to budget cuts for education, other government social programs are also seeing their funding drop. But funding has remained steady or even increased for a program that may be doing more harm than good.
An OU student hopes to open minds and challenge perceptions with her new documentary on a subject about which she is passionate: the issue of female incarceration in Oklahoma. The film screens Tuesday in Gaylord Hall.
Amina Benalioulhaj is a women's and gender studies senior who has been working on her film "Women Behind Bars" for about 11 months now. Benalioulhaj said she decided to make a documentary after working as a research assistant for sociology professor Susan Sharp, reading Sharp's research on the topic and working together on interviews.
“After I'd done all of that, I got the feeling that this is something I could really do,” Benalioulhaj said.
According to the annual Kids Count Factbook from the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state, and their children are five times more likely to end up in prison than their peers. The majority of these women are nonviolent drug offenders whose crimes in other states would not require prison time. These are just a few of the shocking statistics that led Benalioulhaj to focus on this issue for this film, her senior capstone project.
The film focuses on incarcerated women and their children, but also includes interviews with others, such as Department of Corrections personnel and people who compile statistical research without actually coming into contact with any of these women. Benalioulhaj said that the interviews were extremely time-consuming, but very rewarding.
“It's really cool to see all these different people who are talking about one [subject] but coming from a different perspective,” Benalioulhaj said. “You really start to see all the different threads together.”
Although she said some people were apprehensive about her ability to execute such a large project without a film degree or much funding, Benalioulhaj said she also had supportive friends who encouraged her and let her use equipment that she lacked. Because she is a WGS major and not involved in film, the help from others allowed her to focus on the important issues.
“As a WGS major, I've studied domestic violence, the gender wage gap, the feminization of poverty, divorce, single motherhood, abortion, reproductive rights [and] sexual health education,” Benalioulhaj said. “All these issues that touch women in particular touch incarcerated women disproportionately because they are minorities and they are poor, and they come from these backgrounds. Over 90 percent of them have been victims of domestic violence, over 60 percent were victims of sexual/physical abuse in the home as children, and they all suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. These are the people that we need to be helping in our society.”
Benalioulhaj said that she hopes people start to think about these issues and question the status quo as a result of seeing "Women Behind Bars." She also said she hopes perceptions of crime and criminals will change for viewers, as they did for her as a filmmaker.
“The most important thing that I learned interacting with these women and their children is that they're human,” Benalioulhaj said. “Just like anyone else in our society, my opinion and understanding of criminals has been shaped by media and by the way that crime and criminality is portrayed on TV shows and the news. There's a lot of fear associated with it, there's a lot of othering and labeling that happens. But they're women, they're human, they're just like me and you, they're no different. Meeting with them dispelled a lot of fear that I had, whether it was conscious or unconscious fear.”
Benalioulhaj's plans for the future include pursuing social justice for incarcerated individuals and women's rights in general. She said she may send the film to some festivals, depending on the festivals' requirements.
The film is screening tonight and will be followed by a panel discussion with others who worked on the film and are involved with the issue, including Sharp. Benalioulhaj said she hopes that people come see "Women Behind Bars" so they learn about the issues and maybe get inspired to do something about it.
“The research I read really touched me,” Benalioulhaj said. “I wanted other people to know about it. It was too important not to educate the public about.”
If you go:
WHAT: Screening of "Women Behind Bars" with panel discussion following
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Gaylord Hall Room 1140