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Mother’s Lawsuit Says Oklahoma Prison Failed to Prevent Her Daughter’s Death

New development in a high-profile case comes as advocates question the state’s prison conditions and sentencing practices.

Photo illustration by Anagraph / Video still via Oklahoma Watch

On Oct. 24, 2016, Amber Hilberling was found hanging in her prison cell at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center near McLoud, Oklahoma, according to news reports. While the state medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, Hilberling’s family has expressed doubts that she would kill herself.

Her mother, acting as an agent of Hilberling’s estate, recently filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC), claiming “inadequate supervision and classification that permitted the manipulation, coercion, and sexual exploitation of Hilberling throughout her detention.” In early October, the case got the green light to proceed when the ODOC’s motion to dismiss was denied.

At the time of her death, Hilberling was serving a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder stemming from her pushing her husband, Joshua Hilberling, who then fell through a window of their 25th-floor apartment in June 2011.

Hilberling, who was 19 years old and seven months pregnant at the time of her husband’s death, maintained she was the victim of domestic violence. She testified that he grabbed her shoulder, and she pushed him to protect herself and their unborn baby. The state claimed she had been violent toward her husband before; a month prior to his death he had reportedly received an emergency protective order against her.

Before trial, Hilberling rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a five-year sentence. Her legal team told a local news station she went through with the trial instead in the hopes of being able to stay with her infant son.

The suit against the ODOC alleges that on the day of Hilberling’s death, several security failures at the correctional center put her life at risk, including inoperable surveillance equipment and “phantom security checks or security checks that were so inadequate that Hilberling (or others) were able to obscure the activities inside the cell door by covering the window.”

In the months leading up to Hilberling’s death, the suit claims, the ODOC failed to protect Hilberling from fellow prisoners with “well-known predator tendencies.” It also alleges “inadequate medical and mental health care,” saying Hilberling was not consistently receiving the psychotropic medication she was prescribed.

Hilberling’s mother’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment. The ODOC told The Appeal it would not comment beyond its court filing, which claims the lawsuit lacks specificity and should be dismissed.

Throughout her incarceration, Hilberling continued to maintain her innocence. In 2015, Hilberling told the talk show host Phil McGraw, “I pushed him off me,” after he grabbed her. “The window wasn’t supposed to happen.”

The ABC affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma, reported receiving a letter from Hilberling three days after her death, agreeing to their interview request because, she wrote, “I can’t let go of the hope that using my own voice in conversations about my own life will be the one and only chance I have to change the circumstances of my own reality.”

While the attention Hilberling’s case garnered is unusual—including television coverage, a book, and countless local and national news stories—her lengthy prison sentence wasn’t. Oklahoma has the highest rates of imprisonment for women and men in the country. “We’re keeping people an inordinate length of time, definitely way out of balance with other states,” Susan Sharp, author of Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners, told The Appeal.   

Sentencing practices, like Oklahoma’s 85 percent law, which requires people convicted of certain crimes to serve 85 percent of their sentence, contribute to the state’s high incarceration rates, as does its high rate of incarceration for nonviolent crime.

That has had a particularly devastating impact on women, Ryan Gentzler, director of Open Justice Oklahoma at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, told The Appeal. There are about 3,100 women incarcerated in Oklahoma, many of whom, like Hilberling, are also mothers to young children. Two-thirds of the women are incarcerated for a nonviolent offense, according to Gentzler’s analysis of 2015 data from the ODOC. “We choose to incarcerate more nonviolent offenders than most states,” Gentzler explained, “and women bear the brunt of that.”

Oklahoma’s state prisons are plagued by overcrowding—operating at 115 percent capacity—as funding has not kept pace with punitive sentencing policies, according to advocates. At Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, where Hilberling was incarcerated, there are 1,292 women in a facility built to hold 1,280.

Inadequate funding coupled with high incarceration rates have also led to high staffing turnover and anemic programming, advocates say. In fiscal year 2017, for instance, there were 1,549 correctional officers—whose starting pay is $12.78 an hour—for more than 19,000 incarcerated people. With an annual turnover rate of roughly 25 percent, the overwhelming majority of correctional officers have been with the ODOC fewer than five years. 

“Programs are problematic because there’s not enough slots for people to take classes, to have drug treatment, to have anything that might change their direction when they got out of prison,” Sharp said. Of prisoners released in fiscal year 2017 who qualified for substance abuse treatment, just 28 percent received it.  

Dilapidated conditions also plague ODOC facilities, according to the department’s presentation to the legislature in January 2018. Photographs depict holes in a water tank at Mack Alford Correctional Center that had been plugged with a broomstick and a toothbrush. The caption reads: “Without them the facility would not have water.”

“With their budget limitations, there’s only so many of those deck chairs that they can rearrange,” said Gentzler. “It’s just in a constant state of emergency.”