An interview with Amina Benalioulhaj, director of "Women Behind Bars" documentary

Amina Benalioulhaj filming at a women's prison with children in the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program. Photo by Sarah Warmker.

Women Behind Bars is a new documentary about female incarceration in Oklahoma by University of Oklahoma student Amina Benalioulhaj. The film premiered in a packed showing at the deadCENTER Film Festival earlier this month.

A Tulsa screening will be held on Thursday, June 30, from 4 to 6 pm at the Tulsa Community College West Campus Auditorium, 7505 W 41st Street South. Proceeds will benefit Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, which provides counseling and helps young girls to visit their mothers in correctional facilities.

OK Policy spoke with Amina about her experience making the film.

First, could you say a little about the subject of your documentary and where it was filmed?

WOMEN BEHIND BARS: The Voices of Oklahoma’s Incarcerated Women and Their Children is a documentary film that I directed and produced under the guidance of Presidential Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Susan Sharp. The film uses Dr. Sharp’s research along with first-hand interviews and visual aids of female correctional facilities to illustrate the impact of incarcerating women for non-violent drug crimes on their children. It was filmed in Taft, OK, at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, and McCloud Oklahoma, at Mabel Bassett Correction Center. Some footage was also gathered at the Oklahoma State Capitol, various locations in Oklahoma City, and in Norman.

What made you interested in the issue of women’s incarceration?

I majored in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oklahoma and worked as Dr. Sharp’s research assistant for a semester. She’d encouraged me to read the research she’d been conducting on Oklahoma’s incarcerated women, and when I found out that Oklahoma had the highest female incarceration rate per capita in the United States, I was shocked. I also read about their life-histories: over 90 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder related to their childhood encounters with sexual and physical abuse in the home, and over 3/4ths will experience domestic violence in their adult lives. Over 80 percent are also mothers. The majority of them are in prison on short-term, low-level property and drug sentences. Studying these women, I began to realize that every issue faced by women at large – domestic violence, the feminization of poverty, sexual assault, single motherhood, abortion, and gender discrimination – affected these women particularly. As a marginalized group, prisoners in the United States lack a voice. But female offenders in particular have a deeper story to tell – they’ve encountered marginalization long before winding up in a prison cell. The first-hand accounts I read in Dr. Sharp’s research made me want to meet them face to face. It made me want to show people, first-hand, who these women were and what we were doing.

Did you have preconceptions about incarcerated women that changed when you started digging into the issue? Were there any big surprises?

Well, I think in general, most people who have never had a family member or friend in prison have misconceptions/preconceived notions about the American prison system. I’d never set foot in a prison before I made this documentary. It was really eye opening. I encountered many of my own tendencies to separate myself from the inmates in my mind – I was actually surprised they wanted to talk to me and seemed like REGULAR PEOPLE. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did. I really opened up to them, they to me. I made friends while I worked on the film, interviewing them and their children. I think in the end it made me a lot less frightened of people in general – those who would-be considered criminals, and those who work in law enforcement as well. We’re all human, and to an extent, we’re all victims of the criminal justice system – if you’d like to call it that.

What impacts did you see incarceration of women having on their children? What resources do these families need to minimize the harms caused by incarceration?

Dr. Sharp’s research discusses in depth the effect of incarcerating mothers. Their children are five times as likely as their peers to wind up in the criminal justice system. They suffer higher rates of depression, experience a drop in grades in school, and are more likely to drop out of school entirely before graduating. Many of these women find themselves in situations that land them in prison due to poverty – so I believe that their incarceration is a symptom of poverty, a lack of education, a lack of support. These families need counseling, community support, ways to channel their energy constructively. They need decent public education, decent wages, and alternatives to incarceration, such as drug/mental health courts and rehabilitation centers. Their children need community programs that build self-esteem and allow for an open dialogue about what they are encountering with the loss of a parent due to incarceration. In fact, the centerpiece of my film is a program that is working on doing just that: reconnecting incarcerated mothers with their children. The program director, Sheila Harbert, has called it “Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.” Several times a month, they pack lunches and bus girls out to visit their mothers in various correctional facilities. They provide family counseling and a support group for these women and their children. It is the only program of its kind currently running in Oklahoma.

What has been the reception of your film by Oklahomans? What impact do you hope it will have?

The reception of this film, thus far, has been overwhelmingly supportive. Of course, we have also received solid critique – and we are still editing the film to improve what we can. But, for the most part, I’ve heard good responses – people feel that it achieves its goal: consciousness raising. It brings a face to a name – it shows people first-hand the effects of incarcerating women for low-level property and drug crimes. It explores the issue. All I have wanted was to inspire and educate people with this film, and I feel I am doing that. It makes me very happy.

Based on your experience making the film, what policy changes would you like to see in Oklahoma?

I’d like to see drug policy changes. I’d also like to see our state legislators focusing on what we can do to reduce poverty in this state, instead of what we can do to make it more difficult for those who suffer from symptoms of poverty.

How can someone interested in Women Behind Bars get to see it? Are there any upcoming showings, or will DVDs be available?

Please plug our showing on the 30th in Tulsa! This would be incredibly helpful. It is a fundraiser for the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program. We are still working on finding someone who would like to fund distribution and some more post-production work on the film.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

4 thoughts on “An interview with Amina Benalioulhaj, director of "Women Behind Bars" documentary

  1. This film is long overdue — we need to understand how and why so many women are in prison in Oklahoma, and the consequences of their incarcerations. I am looking forward to seeing this film; I have heard lots of good reports from people who have seen it.

  2. “I’d like to see drug policy changes. I’d also like to see our state legislators focusing on what we can do to reduce poverty in this state, instead of what we can do to make it more difficult for those who suffer from symptoms of poverty.” Amen.

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