USA Justice Focus

'Bad moms' or women in need of help? Oklahoma rethinks view of female inmates.

a shift in thought

Oklahoma's rate of incarcerating women is the highest in the US and more than double the average. Pushback is coming from reformers who decry the destabilizing effect on families, as well as fiscal conservatives alarmed by the rocketing prison bill.

Laura Richards talks about her experiences in Women in Recovery, a therapy and drug addiction treatment program for nonviolent female offenders offered as an alternative to incarceration.
Ann Hermes/Staff
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It was late at night and Laura Richards was behind the wheel, drunk and unhappy, arguing with her husband over who should drive. She was in her late 20s and a mother of two, married to a man who she says abused her.

Finally he got out of the car. “I don’t know what happened, but something snapped,” she says.

Ms. Richards later told police that she had tried to run over her husband – that when she drove the car toward him in her alcoholic haze and he jumped out of the way, it was intentional. She was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

It was her fourth arrest and it put her on the road to prison in a state that locks up more people per capita than nearly every other. For women, it’s even more of an outlier: Oklahoma’s female rate is the nation’s highest and more than double the average. Both rates are the result of tough sentencing laws, zealous prosecutors, and a lack of alternatives to prisons.

In other states, policies to reduce prison rolls have won bipartisan backing and led to lower overall rates of incarceration, particularly of drug offenders. Oklahoma has tacked the opposite way, taking a punitive approach that echoes that of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has blamed lenient sentencing of drug dealers for an uptick in violent crime.

The US is second only to Thailand in its rate of incarceration of women, and the number of women in jail has been rising faster than the general population. In Oklahoma, female imprisonments rose 30 percent between 2011 and 2016.

Most of the women imprisoned in Oklahoma are convicted of low-level drug and property crimes like fraud or bad checks. Women are just as likely to be arrested in other states for these offenses, says Susan Sharp, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “But they’re not going to be sent to prison for 5 or 10 or 20 years,” she says.

“It’s very easy to get a felony,” says Amy Santee, a senior program officer at the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) in Tulsa. “It’s very easy to be facing a mandatory minimum. Then you quickly get pulled into the criminal justice system and it’s very hard to get out of it.”

Behind this approach is a conservative culture that takes a dim view of mothers caught up in drug and alcohol addiction. What might be mitigating factors in other jurisdictions – childhood trauma, domestic abuse – fail to sway prosecutors and judges in Oklahoma. Defendants “are seen as failing as women and, in the eyes of many, are seen as terrible people. They’re mothers who use drugs,” says Ms. Sharp.

Pushback is coming from reformers who decry the destabilizing effect on families, as well as fiscal conservatives alarmed by the rocketing prison bill for all inmates. A task force appointed by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin warned earlier this year that Oklahoma would need to need to find $1.2 billion to add three new prisons by 2026 to house a projected rise in inmates, in addition to a current prison population that costs more than $500 million a year.

Last November, voters passed a state ballot question to reclassify minor drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The change took effect on July 1. Over time, this should mean fewer women sentenced to prison for these offenses, says Kris Steele, who led the campaign for the ballot question.

An accompanying ballot item mandates that money saved should go to treatment programs. Female inmates are much more likely than male prisoners to be diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, according to official data.

Still, it will take root-and-branch reforms to reduce the prison population, given the bias in the system toward punitive sentences, says Mr. Steele, a former Republican speaker of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives who served on the governor’s task force. “Oklahoma did not come to have the highest incarceration rate in the country overnight and we’re not going to be able to reverse the trend overnight,” he says.

An off-ramp before prison

Richards didn’t go to prison. In April, she enrolled in Women In Recovery, a community-based rehabilitation program in Tulsa that has treated hundreds of women facing prison terms for nonviolent offenses. Like Richards, nearly all are mothers caught up in a cycle of abusive relationships, addiction, and petty crime.

Enrollees are provided safe housing, intensive therapy, parenting and career classes, and other tailored services, subject to the approval of a judge. Women In Recovery costs about $19,000 a year per person, slightly less than the price of a prison bed and with a significantly lower risk of recidivism for those that complete it.

Every weekday, Richards takes a bus to downtown Tulsa. On the upper floor of a car park is the entrance to a gray office building where she greets staff and other participants. Inside, the walls are lined with colorful social-justice themed posters; it feels more like a campaign headquarters than a rehab clinic. There are kitchens, playrooms, and a warren of rooms for group and individual counseling sessions.   

The aim is not just to help the individual women but also to break a cycle of poverty and crime in families ensnared in the criminal justice system, says Ms. Santee of GKFF, which created the program in 2009 and underwrites most of its costs. “What happens when the mom goes to prison is that the kids really get set on this same pathway,” she says.

Children left with reluctant relatives or put into foster care are at greater risk of neglect and abuse and of turning to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. Sharp says her surveys of imprisoned women in Oklahoma found high levels of child abuse, both physical and sexual. Nearly all reported that they had suffered domestic violence.

Among the more than 3,000 women currently behind bars in Oklahoma are mothers and daughters serving time in the same state prisons, often for similar drug-related offenses.

Like other states, Oklahoma has drug courts that can divert women to treatment instead of prison. Women In Recovery accepts mothers who don’t make the cut, says Mimi Tarrasch, the program’s director. “If you don’t get into this program, you’re going to prison,” she says.

Women in Recovery participants take part in a group therapy session on Oct. 13 in Tulsa. Women in Recovery is a therapy and drug addiction treatment program for non-violent female offenders offered as an alternative to incarceration.
Ann Hermes/Staff
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Door-to-door lawyers

Asher Levinthal’s workday gets a jump-start at 8 a.m. That’s when Tulsa’s county jail updates its booking list and when Mr. Levinthal, an attorney who works in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, can check who has been arrested since yesterday and who has posted bail.

Justice is blind, but a good attorney helps. For the past year, Levinthal’s organization, Still She Rises, has built a legal-aid practice in Tulsa that is exclusively for mothers facing incarceration and helps not only with criminal courts but also child-protection services and other agencies. It’s the first of its kind anywhere in the country. The program is still too new to be able to tell its impact on the recidivism rate of the low-income, African-American population it’s designed to serve.

On a recent morning, Levinthal and a junior attorney climbed into his forest-green sedan and consulted printouts of arrest data. He located three local women who had posted bail; another attorney was at the jail to speak to women still being held there.

At the first two houses, nobody appeared to be home. Levinthal, who wore a gray suit, pushed a leaflet through the letterbox and left. At the third address, a ranch house on a corner lot of patchy grass, a face appeared at the curtained window. The two lawyers walked up to the stoop and rapped on the door.

Silence. A dog barked nearby. “We probably look too much like police or something,” Levinthal muttered.

Eventually the door was opened by an elderly man who said the arrested woman – age 26, charged with reckless and drunken driving – was his granddaughter but that she hadn’t been home. A leaflet was passed on, and the two attorneys headed back to their offices, a rented space in a dilapidated, semi-vacant shopping mall.

Still She Rises is a project of the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit in New York, and is funded by GKFF. The idea, says Santee, is to improve the legal representation of incarcerated mothers so that they stay out of prison for minor crimes and parole offenses. If Women In Recovery is the final off-ramp before prison, this is a detour.

Still She Rises defends mothers in North Tulsa, a poor, largely African-American community, which is disproportionately represented in Oklahoma’s jails. “It’s always important to go where the need is greatest, and this is a community that has a lot of needs,” says Levinthal.

Chef Valerie Mansfield (r.), directs Arianna Pyles, (c.), while teaching a cooking class at Women In Recovery on Oct. 12, in Tulsa. Women in Recovery is a therapy and drug addiction treatment program for non-violent female offenders offered as an alternative to incarceration.
Ann Hermes/Staff
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Forging a new path for families

Richards, who has shoulder-length curly brown hair and green eyes, knows that addictions – alcohol and prescription pills – put her kids at risk. She describes her own childhood in Tulsa as happy and stable; she later found out that her parents both had a history of drug abuse.

While studying to be a dental hygienist she had her daughter at 19, then her son at 22. She worked full-time as an optician and struggled to mend what she calls “a toxic relationship” with her husband. The drinking got worse. But she tried to keep up appearances.

After the car assault in 2015, child services investigated because her daughter was in the backseat. They didn’t take away her children, but the marriage had soured and Richards felt trapped. “I was scared and didn’t know how to get out of it,” she says.

She was also scared of going to prison for assault and other violations, which is why she eagerly accepted a place at Women In Recovery. “I wanted to get away from my husband. I wanted space. I felt like I was being controlled, like a slave,” she says.

Mothers enrolled in Women In Recovery have strictly limited contact with friends and relatives, particularly at the outset, in part to avoid temptations of drugs and alcohol. (Richards says she has been sober for nearly two years.) This also goes for children living in foster care or with relatives, even though the ultimate goal is reunion.

The playrooms at Women In Recovery are brightly painted and stuffed with books and toys. “Share With Others. Say Please. Be Kind,” reads a sign. There’s a large two-way mirror on one wall that allows a counselor to watch reunions between mothers and young children, whose presence can be both a source of joy and of anxiety for these women.

Mothers wear a discreet earpiece so that counselors can guide their play and offer advice on how to deal with tantrums. Afterward there is a debriefing and tips for next time. The next step after these visits is for children to stay overnight with their moms. Eventually they can move in together; program officers also help mothers win back custody of children.

Being based in the community, rather than in prisons, allows the program to show women practical steps to rebuild their lives. “Here are safe places to go. Here are your children’s schools. Many of these moms have never been to their children’s schools, never been to a parent-teacher conference,” says Santee.

Richards, now 31, says she is learning how to be a better parent and to manage adult relationships, particularly with her husband, who shares custody of their children. “I hope they don’t follow down the same path as I did. I hope they can learn from my mistakes,” she says.

Her daughter and son are supportive of her recovery program, she says, and they often stay with her overnight. She isn’t in contact with her husband and doesn’t know if their marriage can be saved. “At some point we’ll figure out what we want to do,” she says.

Lindsay McAteer shows her booking photo which she keeps on her phone on Oct. 12.
Ann Hermes/Staff
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'I miss my mom'

Tulsa is starting to see the fruits of these initiatives. As more offenders are diverted to Women In Recovery, female prison admissions have fallen by more than half since 2009, even as statewide admissions rose. The program’s completion rate is 68 percent; of these women, recidivism rates after three years are 5 percent, says Ms. Tarrasch.

Under a “pay for success” contract signed in April, Oklahoma has agreed to reimburse Women In Recovery up to $22,584 paid in four installments for each woman that it rehabilitates. The program is expanding to serve 150 women at a time.

This success inspired ReMerge, a diversion program in Oklahoma City for mothers and pregnant women that began in 2011. Nearly all are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. Like Women In Recovery, the program seeks to address underlying mental health issues that have fueled the expansion in female incarceration, says Terri Woodland, the executive director.

“Our prisons have become warehouses for individuals who are struggling with mental health and drug issues,” she says.

Oklahoma City has made less headway, however, in reducing prison numbers. This is because ReMerge is smaller in size – 50 women – and because it’s harder here to find alternatives for women who relapse, says Ms. Woodland. “When a female fails her program (in Tulsa) there’s more of a collaborative effort to keep that individual out of prison,” she says.

At Women In Recovery, two young women sit in the reception room, backlit by the morning sun. Both are new to their program, and as they wait for their classes to start they share war stories of binges, of lost days and nights. One taps her foot on the carpeted floor, 150 beats per minute.

As they talk, another woman paces the window, looking for her mother who is coming to pick her up, perhaps for the first time in a long time. She checks with the receptionist as to program protocol. Does her mother need to come in and sign her out? No, she’s told. It’s fine.

After 10 minutes, a gray-haired woman with a weathered face pulls up. She embraces her daughter at the door, tentatively. Then they turn and head outside into the sunshine.

The two newcomers fall silent and turn their heads towards the window.

“I want my mom to pick me up,” says one.

“I know; I miss my mom,” sighs the other.

They stare out into the blue sky.   

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