Recovery Program Gives Moms in Prison a Way Out
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Recovery Program Gives Moms in Prison a Way Out


women in prisonThe US is addicted to putting people in prison, as evidenced by the fact that more than one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars (that’s the largest prison population in the world, yo). Prisons are a multi billion dollar industry that costs the average American household $600 a year in tax dollars. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather donate my money to a cause that I know is actually helping people. Now a model program in Oklahoma called Women in Recovery is doing just that.

In a recent Sunday New York Times opinion piece, columnist Nicholas Kristof examines a (not so) little corner of the American prison system—women incarcerated in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Kristof calls Oklahoma the “global capital for female incarceration” because it locks up 142 out of every 100,000 women. That’s about 10 times the rate of other states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts. As anybody who has ever watched Locked Up Abroad knows, the only country in the world with more women in prison is Thailand.

Worse for Women

Prison sucks for anybody, but let’s be real—it’s worse for women. And, according to Kristof’s article, 60 percent of American women in state prisons have children under the age of 18. That’s a lot of kids living without moms. Even a mom having the worst day of her life is probably about 40 percent more effective at handling her kid than a dad (I just made that up, based on my own experience). Actual studies show that children whose moms are locked up are often thrown into chaotic home environments and are more likely to be sexually abused as well as end up in prison themselves.

The Times piece talked to a woman named Anessa Rabbit who grew up in this exact type of environment. Like many female felons, Rabbit was locked up in part because of an abusive boyfriend. She says he used to choke and beat her in order to force her into committing crimes. “He always put me in the position of doing the dirty work,” Rabbit recounted. After the last robbery, he ended up with a sentence of four years probation, while she faced a possible 26 years in prison. Apparently, prosecutors often threaten the women with long sentences in an effort to get them to testify against their men. When the women refuse to snitch, they can go to prison for years.

All About Addiction

By all rights, I should have spent some time in prison. I did some real dirt back in the day. Luckily, by the time I started getting arrested, I was almost ready to get clean anyway. The consequences were mounting and I ditched my criminal lifestyle and pulled a geographic just in time. But a felony warrant for my arrest followed me around my first year in recovery. I thought I could put off dealing with it, but the police had a different plan. When I had about nine months clean, I was picked up for not wearing a seatbelt on my way to a 12-step event. I spent the next few weeks shuffled from one jail to another until I was delivered into the hands of the correct agency.

I was on fire for recovery when I got arrested that last time. I babbled to anybody who would listen about going to meetings, working the steps and the incredible freedom I had begun to experience. I talked to a ton of women and listened to a lot of stories. What I learned during this adventure (because what else am I gonna call it 15 years later?) was that every single woman I talked to was in jail behind the disease of addiction. Whether it was check fraud, assault, possession or DUI—it was all about addiction.

Kristof’s article reported that 82 percent of the women in state prisons had drug or alcohol problems. It also examined a disturbing trend, where the women who weren’t considered “serious” drug addicts didn’t qualify for rehab behind bars. The piece interviewed a woman named Alicia Hunter, who had this experience. Said Hunter, whose mom was in prison when she was a kid (vicious cycle, Exhibit A), “Prison got me sober, but it didn’t get me anywhere.” She talked about the merry-go-round of her addiction. She would go to prison, get clean and then without any new coping skills or prospects, would return to using drugs when she got out.

Turning it Around

Now women like Hunter and Rabbit are getting an opportunity to break this cycle thanks to the Women in Recovery program in Tulsa. The groundbreaking strategy applies a two-generation approach that works with both the women and their children. The program offers counseling, life coaching, lessons on budgeting and conflict resolution. But in addition to the therapeutic component, Women in Recovery provides the women with the basics they need for a fresh start—help getting safe affordable housing, GEDs and jobs.

The program lasts 17 months and the success rates are high: the reported recidivism rate for the participants after three years is just 4.9 percent. The program is saving money for the state of Oklahoma left and right. Without it, more women would be locked up for years at a much greater cost and, even if they do get out, end up right back inside without the tools to rebuild their lives. It’s a no-brainer that this type of program is a great solution to reduce rates of female incarceration, help families stay together and reduce crime in the long run.

The therapeutic value of one addict helping another is unparalleled, but programs like this this are much more likely to be effective than my brief stint preaching the 12-step gospel in jail. I’m not saying my speeches didn’t slay; it’s just that my one woman show is no substitute for a state-sponsored program that could change the state of incarceration for hundreds of women.

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About Author

Becky Sasso is a writer and editor who worked at the world headquarters of an international 12-step organization and has a Master's in communication from Johns Hopkins University. She currently serves as the head of Marketing and Development for The Gentle Barn Foundation and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.