Oklahoma Program Offers Women a Second Chance
By Vallery Brown
Just blocks from the county jail in downtown Oklahoma City, women are making the choice and taking strides not to end up as prisoners.
A program here has given women a second chance so they don't end up like the more than 2,500 women incarcerated in the state's prisons.
Since last spring, it's proved successful. State Corrections Department officials estimate 90 percent of women who've entered the female prison diversion programs in Tulsa and Oklahoma City haven't re-entered the criminal justice system.
Currently, 133 women are enrolled in the two female diversion programs administered by the state.
What brings these women together could be seen as their crimes — like selling drugs, obtaining prescriptions illegally, forgery and burglary. But what binds them could also be none wants to end up behind bars and continue making the mistakes that got them arrested.
See the change
"I was ready to go to prison so I didn't have to deal with things anymore," Sequita Smith said.
Smith, 44, was charged in 2008 with a felony count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. She received a 5-year deferred sentence, and is a rare case in the program. Many women have committed drug or money crimes.
"I snapped one day. ... I would have cut his head off," said Smith, who had no previous criminal record before lashing out at her boyfriend.
Her violent relationship with him left Smith feeling trapped and worthless. One day he took a hammer to her face in a fit of rage. Plastic surgeons fixed the damage to her skin, but Smith needed to learn how to handle her internal pain.
She says her life has turned around since entering the program. When she graduates next month, she plans to come back and volunteer.
"You have to narrow it down to the hurt and find the point where you allowed yourself to start being a victim," she said. "This is a challenge to how much you want to change, and it lets people see that change in you."
Smith, like the 61 other women currently in the Oklahoma City program, is on probation. She was on a path to having it revoked before a judge sent her to the program.
The state contracts with the nonprofit evaluation and counseling center NorthCare to provide services in Oklahoma City.
Probation officers can make referrals and judges can sentence offenders to the program.
Katie Hayden, program manager and a licensed counselor and social worker at NorthCare, said the women work to identify the behaviors that got them in trouble.
Then, they learn why they acted that way.
"Doing drugs, selling drugs, writing hot checks, getting angry and all of these behaviors meet a need they have," Hayden said.
"We help them identify what it is they really need and find a way to address it positively."
Feeling safe during the program is important, and the women have access to help with housing and other resources they might need.
The majority of the enrollees in Oklahoma City are in their 20s.
The oldest woman in the program is in her late 50s.
Many have children.
About 60 percent are being treated for mental health and drug problems.
Most would say jail seemed inevitable before the program work began.
"We're dealing with women who have sometimes been broken since childhood," said Courtney Woodard, the state Corrections Department's female offender program coordinator.
"It's easy to send someone to prison, but here they get the support they need and we see better outcomes."
Woodard said the program is also cost-effective. Locking women up can cost the state around $40 a day.
Probation costs less than $3 a day, and the diversion program is funded through a federal grant.
The social costs of locking up a woman and taking her away from children and family is also high. Woodard said many incarcerated women came from violent homes and many had parents who were locked up.
Female-only group classes help forge bonds and allow women to feel comfortable sharing problems. A combination of one-on-one counseling, group and family sessions focus on issues like sobriety skills, codependency, anger awareness, grief and trauma and teaching women how to feel independent and self-secure.
Unlike other drug court or similar programs, the courses and steps are fitted to the needs of the woman.
Christi Nelon, 32, was one slip-up away from violating her probation for drug charges and ending up in jail. Her drug addiction and emotional problems so consumed her, she weighed 87 pounds when she entered the diversion program.
"I was at the end of my road," Nelon said. "There was nowhere left to go."
Nelon said it would have been easier to give up and go to jail. But the hard work paid off.
"They show you what it means to be something," she said. "I'm healthy for the first time in my life."
Erlinda Ramirez, 41, was also on a fast-track to doing hard time. Her latest brush with the law for selling drugs was one incident in a series of missteps.
"I took full responsibility for what I did," said Ramirez, a soft-spoken woman who one day wants to help counsel domestic abuse victims. "It's not about low income; It's not because of race."
Breaking the cycle
Susan Sharp, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the book "The Incarcerated Woman," said these types of programs can help break the cycle of incarceration.
"It's better and cheaper to intervene than to react when things are out of control," Sharp said. "What we've been doing simply hasn't been effective or our prison population wouldn't continue to grow."
She said these programs can give women the tools and counseling they need to be accountable and grow in their lives.
In some cases, what the women achieve is even astounding the experts.
"They are changing, becoming stronger and are ready to become productive members of society and their families," Hayden said. "By our definition, it's working."