February 6, 2011

Programs Prepare Women for Release

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Barbara Saunders teaches a class inside David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center on Dec. 13, 2010 in Tulsa. Saunders teaches the class for Stand in the Gap, a faith-based program with several services, including a biweekly class for women in jail on self-esteem and better decision making.

Adam Wisneski/Tulsa World

Barbara Saunders teaches a class inside David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center on Dec. 13, 2010 in Tulsa. Saunders teaches the class for Stand in the Gap, a faith-based program with several services, including a biweekly class for women in jail on self-esteem and better decision making.

At the Tulsa County Jail, inmate Soconda Boyd is doing what she can to prepare for her second trip to prison.

While waiting for the transfer, she is taking the Women in Transition program offered by Barbara Saunders of Stand in the Gap, which is an interdenominational Tulsa ministry.

Boyd is learning about the power of journal writing, setting goals and planning for her release.

“What can you do to reward yourself when you meet a goal?” Saunders asks.

“I’m going to prison, so I don’t know,” Boyd said. “I’m having a hard time figuring out a goal.”

Saunders suggests goals such as finishing a GED, taking college classes offered in prison, or participating in self-confidence and independence programs. For rewards, she mentions creating art, buying a luxury item like chocolate in the canteen or calling family.

“You have to give yourself a gift,” Saunders said.

Improving while in jail

The Tulsa County Jail offers nine educational programs for women, including improving parenting skills, intervening in domestic violence and building self-esteem. A program about budgeting developed by financial columnist Dave Ramsey is being launched this year.

The jail had served 3,259 inmates in 25 ongoing classes between Jan. 1 and Dec. 21 in 2010, said Chaplain Mike Hardgrove.

Participants include women who are newly arrested, waiting on their case resolution, serving a sentence or waiting on a prison transfer. Federal inmates are not eligible.

The jail is not required to offer any programs and does not have a budget for classes. Jail staff will occasionally make copies of course materials, Hardgrove said.

Community organizations provide materials, and volunteers gave 4,790 hours last year to staff the programs.

“I look for things that could make a difference for them once a person gets out of jail,” Hardgrove said. “For example, with Women in Transition, that is set up to try and help women stay out of jail, keep from coming back, and understand the decisions they make and the consequences of those decisions.”

The domestic violence intervention programs are always the most popular, followed by the Life in Focus and Women in Transition classes, Hardgrove said.

Timing is difficult to coordinate, with some programs running eight to 12 weeks, he said.

“In good faith, we may start a person, and two weeks later, they are gone,” Hardgrove said. “In an ideal world, an inmate would finish a class and move on. I’m not asking for that. There is no way for that to happen.”

Because of the staff size, classes are only offered during the day, except for Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous sessions. Also, space is limited. The computer lab was turned into a law library to follow federal regulations, which creates an obstacle to offering computer-based classes.

“Most of these people are being adjudicated. They are Tulsa County residents who have not yet been found guilty,” Hardgrove said. “I believe it’s important to continue providing educational opportunities to keep them actively moving toward bettering themselves, even though they are here.”

‘BUILD A NEW WOMAN’

Boyd pleaded no contest April 6 to five charges—burglary of a vehicle, assault with a dangerous weapon, malicious injury to property over $2,500, leaving the scene of an accident and violating a protective order.

On Oct. 27, she received five years each on the first three charges and one year each on the last two, all running concurrently.

Boyd has several prior arrests and convictions going back to 1989, many for larceny. She spoke to the group about learning how to make ends meet.

“When I have $100 and it’s mid-month and bills are due, I have to say, ‘OK, I cannot commit a crime to get money.’ There has to be a better solution than that,” Boyd said.

The class incorporates how to handle stress while the women are locked up and planning for their eventual release.

“I’m going to a transitional home when I get out,” Boyd said. “I was embarrassed before to do that because people might think I don’t have family. But I’m going to do it for me, to help me get my own self together.”

Each class tackles a different theme, such as addictions, family secrets and shame, conflict resolution, the legacy of trauma, learning self-care, and the power of no.Participants take turns reading out loud, followed by discussion led by written questions.

One woman talks about her destructive relationship with her ex-husband, another alludes to being raped and many discuss facing emotional and financial pressures of motherhood.

At least two of the four women in the class said their mother had served jail or prison time.

“This is temporary,” Saunders said. “This situation you are in won’t be forever. This is not what will determine the entire rest of your life — if you make a change and build a new woman.”

Mercedes Love, who has applied for the Women in Recovery alternative sentencing treatment program, said the class has helped shift her priorities.

“At first when I came here, I was bad to the bone,” Love said. “I didn’t have the courage I do now. Now, I’m glad I came here to get a hold of myself. I don’t know who that girl was. I don’t like that girl. I look at her picture everyday and do not want that girl to come back.”

Love has a pending charge from August of robbery with a firearm; she is on a deferred sentence from a May charge of larceny from a retailer and was given a suspended sentence in February 2010 for falsely impersonating another to create liability.

She has children who are being cared for by family members.

“I think of my kids like crazy, but I know they are in good hands,” Love said. “I have to look at it like God doesn’t want me to miss them right now because he has other things he wants me to do and focus on.”

Resources for incarcerated women