Award-Winning University Of Oklahoma Professor Devotes Her Career To Incarcerated Women
Women stand in a circle, holding hands and singing "Make New Friends." Their children stand beside them. These powerful scenes are part of a documentary called Women Behind Bars: The Voices of Oklahoma’s Incarcerated Women and Their Children.
It's produced by University of Oklahoma graduate Amina Benaliouhaj, and based on the research of OU sociologist Susan Sharp that focuses on female crime, incarceration of women, and the impact of corrections policies on families and offenders.
Oklahoma has the nation's highest incarceration rate of women, and Sharp has devoted her life to educating both the public and her students about the reality of these women’s lives.
"I think teaching is probably one of the greatest jobs in the world," Sharp said. "I love my students. I never try to change their perspective. I just try to give them information and let them make decisions. Watching them develop their own paths in life has been an incredible journey for me."
Sharp understands some of the struggles these incarcerated women face. She completed her bachelor's degree at 29 as a single mother with three young children, and earned her Ph.D. after her kids grew older. She's won multiple awards for her teaching by bringing people into the classroom, so students can see beyond the data and into the eyes of what these womens' lives are like.
"I've done a poverty simulation where I put students into families," Sharp said. "When they come to class, they get information on what happened to their family, and they have to make budgets and decisions. It makes poverty much more real to them."
Sharp still hears from students who took her instruction to heart and now work with women leaving the correctional system. But success doesn't come without challenges, as she learned early in her career during a study for the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission.
"A victims’ rights group marched into the commission and demanded they not accept our report because it's a waste of taxpayers' money to study the families of prisoners," Sharp said. "It was very traumatic. Reporters called me about it and everything. I learned that if you're going to study controversial topics, not everyone will like you."
But Sharp says she's learned to deal with adversity with some simple advice.
"I believe everybody has the right to their opinion," she said. "I do as much as they do."