Oklahoma's Crisis: Too Many Women Behind Bars

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Yvonne Allen, right, program coordinator for faith-based instruction at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, listens to an inmate, left, at the prison, in Mcloud, Okla., Friday, July 27, 2007.

Oklahoma has a woman problem. The state currently incarcerates 132 women for every 100,000 females in the state — almost double the national average. In fact, Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration in the country, with about 67% of the more than 2,700 women incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. But at an annual cost of $26,000 per inmate, imprisonment doesn't come cheap, especially for a corrections system that is so overextended it was recently forced to eliminate visitations due to employee furloughs.

To compound the problem, three percent of Oklahoma children have at least one parent in prison, and children with at least one incarcerated parent are five times more likely to go to prison at some point in their life.

Candice Weaver, 28, knows what prison is like. Growing up in a household where her mother drank and both parents partied constantly, Weaver was raised to believe that drug use wasn't necessarily bad. "I was taught that if you were a functioning addict, you weren't as bad as a hardcore addict who couldn't function and hold a job," says the mother of an 11-year-old boy. She has now spent a combined total of about five years in Oklahoma state prisons stemming from her addiction to drugs — everything from alcohol and marijuana to PCP, cocaine and heroin. Her most recent arrest was for soliciting prostitution and possession of a controlled substance.

And then there's Kimberly Cummings. She was 16 when she first began using methamphetamines. She continued to take the drug through two abusive marriages and the birth of her three children, now 18, 15 and 7. In April 2009, officers arrested Cummings, 39, after finding a methamphetamine lab in her Tulsa County home. She was charged with endeavoring to manufacture the drug. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Both Weaver and Cummings were on their way to becoming part of Oklahoma's incarceration statistic until a Tulsa-based program called Women in Recovery stepped in. Weaver has been in the program for eights months, while Cummings graduated in July 2010 sober, with a place to live and a job as an executive assistant, and her children back in her life.

Rather than send a woman to prison, where she may or may not be able to get adequate drug treatment, Women in Recovery tries to break the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse by treating nonviolent women before they are sentenced to prison. As part of the program, the women wear ankle monitors in the beginning to track their whereabouts, update the judicial system on their progress regularly; they also spend the night in halfway houses (studies show that most women in Oklahoma prisons have a history of sexual abuse and domestic violence). If they are successful and graduate, the women will get their sentences deferred.

Diversion programs like Women in Recovery show that not everyone is against second chances, says Cummings, who was one of the first female offenders in the state to avoid prison for endeavoring to manufacture. "Though Oklahomans are perceived to be 'lock them up and throw away the key,' that's not always what they want."

In fact, the program has helped inspire a Republican bill in the Oklahoma legislature. Authored by House Speaker Kris Steele, it requires the Department of Corrections to create a similar diversion program through a public-private partnership as well as re-entry programs in the state for primary caregivers. Although it is not gender specific, Steele notes that females are more often than not the primary caregivers. "My hope is that it will lead to additional correctional reforms to reconsider policies and how it's [the incarceration rate] affecting the budget," Steele says.

Women in Recovery is an attempt to break a pattern of addiction before prison helps ingrain it. "Offenders are often put back in the same environment. We want to separate them from their past," says Mimi Tarrasch, director of Women in Recovery. The George Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on reversing the cycle of poverty, developed the initial concept of the program and has given more than $3.2 million to Women in Recovery since it began in June 2009. "Our charitable focus is early intervention to reverse the cycle of poverty so that most of our activities surround the wellbeing of young children. Clearly, the strong attachment between mother and child is central to that purpose," Kaiser, a lifelong Tulsan who Forbes ranked as the 29th richest person in America, says in an e-mail.

So far, 14 women have completed Women in Recovery, receiving a variety of services, including substance abuse treatment, parenting skills training, life skills, job support and health and dental care. Sixty-one women are enrolled in the program that lasts up to one year, which has hopes of expanding to 100 participants during 2011. The women who have graduated from or are currently in the program have 158 children. Eleven women have failed to complete the program, mostly because they were not ready to deal with their addiction. "You have to be ready to change everything about your addiction. It's a significant change," says Tarrasch, who leads special projects at Tulsa's Family & Children's Services, which administers Women in Recovery.

Women in Recovery is a collaborative process that includes judges, district attorneys and public defenders, says Amy Santee, senior program officer of the George Kaiser Family Foundation. As a private practice lawyer, Kurt Glassco saw what Women in Recovery did for a client he was representing. Since becoming Tulsa District County Court Judge in October 2009, he has given several eligible women the chance at recovery instead of several years behind bars. "We put too many women in penitentiary," he says. "Most are for bogus checks, bad [prescriptions], and now, meth. Meth is everywhere."