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Oklahoma Program Tries to Divert Women From Prison

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Oklahoma's rate of female incarceration has led the country for many years. A 2009 program to detour women to drug treatment may help change that.

Subhead: 
Oklahoma's rate of female incarceration has led the country for many years. A 2009 program to detour women to drug treatment may help change that.



TULSA, Okla. (WOMENSENEWS)--So far 13 women have graduated from a drug-treatment program here that is trying to tackle the high rate of female incarceration that has been plaguing the state for the past decade and a half.

Program officials hope to have 100 women in the program by the end of the year.

Eleven women have failed to complete the program.

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"You have to be ready to change everything about your addiction. It's a significant change," said Mimi Tarrasch, director of Women in Recovery.

The state has put more women behind bars per capita than any other state for 14 out of the last 15 years.

The ratio of incarcerated women is 132 for every 100,000 women, nearly double the national average and far above neighboring states. In Texas the same ratio figure is 92. In Kansas it's 41.

Rather than send a woman to prison, where she may or may not be able to get adequate drug and alcohol abuse treatment, Women in Recovery, which started in June 2009, tries to break the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse by treating nonviolent women before they are sentenced to prison by a judge. Only women who are ineligible for other programs are able to take part, and mothers are given a high priority.

Studies show the majority of women in Oklahoma prisons have a history of sexual abuse

and domestic violence.

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 started. The donation by Kaiser, a lifelong Tulsan and one the richest people in the United States, represents a response to the charitable campaign created by Warren Buffet, CEO of the Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire Hathaway, and Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash.

Monitoring and Regular Updates

As part of the program, the women wear ankle monitors in the beginning to track their whereabouts and give the judges steady updates on their progress. The women reside in halfway houses.

Most participants who successfully complete the program will get the felony charge taken off their record and may get their court fines reduced.

While in treatment, the women receive a variety of services, including substance abuse treatment, parenting skills training, life skills, job support and health and dental care.

Sixty-one women are currently enrolled in the program that lasts up to one year. The program may expand to 100 participants during 2011, which would begin making an impact on the number of women sent to prison from Tulsa. In fiscal year 2010, 300 women from Tulsa County were sent to Oklahoma state prisons.

The women who have either graduated or are currently in the program have a total of 158 children.

Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, a Republican, has met with several of the women taking part in the program.

Last year he authored a bill to create a similar prison-diversion program in Oklahoma City through a public-private partnership. Then-Democratic Gov. Brad Henry signed it into law last year. The bill also creates a pilot re-entry program. Although the bill is non-gender specific, it was written for primary caregivers, many of who are women, Steele noted.

About 67 percent of the more than 2,700 women incarcerated in Oklahoma are there for nonviolent offenses.

Addiction Common, Treatment Needed

For many of the women in Oklahoma's legal system, addiction plays a role. Of the 1,393 female offenders the Department of Corrections received during fiscal year 2010, 64 percent were assessed with a moderate to high need for substance abuse treatment.

Candice Weaver has spent a combined total of about five years in Oklahoma state prisons for possession of a controlled substance and other charges related to her addiction to drugs--everything from alcohol and marijuana to PCP, cocaine and heroin. Growing up in a household where her mother drank and both parents partied, Weaver, 28, said she learned 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," said Weaver, who has an 11-year-old son.

When she was brought up on charges most recently, however, she didn't go to prison. She moved to a halfway house and started treatment at Women in Recovery. Weaver is hoping she won't wind up in prison again.

Geana Hill, 27, recently graduated from the program after 15 months of treatment. She now has a job, a place to live and sees her 9-year-old daughter regularly.

Hill was 13 when she first tried methamphetamine after her mother gave it to her. She soon became addicted. At 15, Hill met her now-ex husband. She got pregnant at 16 and dropped out of high school at 17. Eventually she left her husband and child to be with her dealer. She was soon arrested for endeavoring to manufacture methamphetamine.

Hill was facing 10 years in prison before Women in Recovery stepped in.

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Kristi Eaton is a freelance writer currently based in Oklahoma. Visit her Web site at kristieaton.com or follow her on twitter at twitter.com/kristieaton.