December 12, 2010

Alternative to Prison Proves Successful

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Deanise Smedley went straight back to drugs when her first stint in an Oklahoma prison ended.

“Coming out of prison, your self-esteem is so low and you’re so beat down,” Smedley said.

Arrested again on more drug charges, Smedley was sent to a state drug court designed to let nonviolent addicts serve their sentences outside the prison system so they can treat their drug addictions.

But like the prison programs Smedley took before it, drug court didn’t work. Smedley relapsed.

“I fell right back into my old habits,” said Smedley, 36.

Further treatment programs proved ineffective and Smedley kept using and wound up back in court, bringing with her all the accompanying costs of processing her through the state’s criminal justice system.

Her tale is emblematic of Oklahoma’s prison crisis: Drug use sends a woman to prison, where treatment fails and as a result she keeps using and winds up back in the criminal justice system.

It’s a common cycle in Oklahoma, which has the nation’s highest female incarceration rate.

42 percent jailed for drugs

About 42 percent of Oklahoma’s female prisoners are there because of drug offenses

, Department of Corrections data shows.

However, a new alternative sentencing program designed to combat the female incarceration problem is reporting fast success.

Women in Recovery is a Tulsa-based public-private partnership offering alternative sentencing for women. About 60 women are in the program. Since it started a year and a half ago, 14 women have graduated from the program, which hopes to be serving 100 women at once by the middle of next year.

State lawmakers passed a bill supporting the program this year and expect to pass more laws like it next year as they look for ways to alleviate the strain on the state’s prison system.

Lawmakers are talking a lot about being “smart” on crime, and they’re pointing to programs like Women in Recovery when doing so.

The program is where Smedley is now.

She was arrested again — more drug charges — but says the program has given her hope she can turn her life around.

“I’ve been in prison, 30-day programs, 90-day programs, many programs. The difference between this program and the many others that I’ve been to is this is the first program that has ever said, ‘You’re worth it,’” Smedley said.

The first rule of Women in Recovery is there are no rules.

No magic formula, no checklists, no standard operating procedures.

Instead, the program takes an individual approach to each woman enrolled in it — a far cry from the preprogrammed regimens of most conventional and alternative sentencing programs.

“There is no matrix,” said Amy Santee, a senior program officer at the George Kaiser Family Foundation who helped start the program.

The foundation is funding much of the program, but Santee is quick to point out that the program wouldn’t work without the support of the community — particularly those in the criminal justice system.

Judges, prosecutors, public defenders and other court officials work closely with Women in Recovery, as do several other community groups.

HOUSING HELP OFFERED

Mimi Tarrasch, director of special projects for Family and Children’s Services in Tulsa, runs day-to-day operations for Women in Recovery.

Tarrasch said the program is set up to fit loosely into a calendar year.

“But if they’re not ready, we don’t move them along,” Tarrasch said.

Tarrasch uses the word “ready” a lot when talking about the women in the program.

When she and her team review potential program participants, they don’t evaluate them on if they qualify.

They ask if they’re ready.

“(The program) is intense,” Tarrasch said. “You have to want to be here.”

The program admits women convicted of nonviolent offenses before they are sentenced. The goal is to treat any addictions and prepare them to be productive members of society.

While in the program, the women are helped in getting a job and finding steady housing.

The program also provides little things — like nice clothes — to help them along the way.

Tarrasch said: “What woman doesn’t want to look nice?”

Giving the women nice clothes and nutritional food is part of the program’s work to boost their self-esteem.

Some women, who just a few months ago were jobless and in the drug world, now work for major Tulsa companies. Others work in services industries, where they hold management positions.

Among them is Smedley, who for the first time in more than a decade is out of the drug world. She’s in management at a fast-food chain. She has her own home. She’s cut old friends who were bad influences out of her life.Like most in Women in Recovery, Smedley is a mother whose past incarcerations saw her leave a child behind while she was in prison.

Oklahoma children whose parents are incarcerated are five times more likely than their peers to wind up in prison themselves, according to the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

Tarrasch said the women in the program today have 135 children among them.

By working closely with the mothers, Tarrasch and her staff feel they are in turn working with the children.

That much is clear to Smedley, who said the help she’s received in the program has made her a better mother to her 17-year-old daughter.

“My daughter was headed down the same path. She was using drugs. She was failing school, well on her way to prison just like I was,” Smedley said.