Seeking lives “substance free and ready to contribute to society”

The Women in Recovery (WIR) graduation ceremony was at times inspiring and frequently emotional, especially in the powerful speeches from three graduates – Brooke Larson, Christy Satterwhite and Melissa Martin. 

Still, the public policy purpose behind the event for WIR — a project of Tulsa’s Family & Children’s Services and the George Kaiser Family Foundation – was evident in the comments of Governor Mary Fallin, Speaker of the House Kris Steele and two women who direct much of the work at WIR. 

The program’s sixth graduating class brings the number of women helped to 139, with 70 of those graduates. The effort has broadly and positively impacted 325 children. 

WIR is described by organizers as “an alternative to incarceration program for nonviolent female offenders in Tulsa County who have alcohol and drug addictions.”

In her prepared remarks, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said,  “Oklahoma still ranks first in the nation with the rate of incarcerated nonviolent female offenders. With programs like Women in Recovery, we are starting to buck that trend, save lives and families in the process.

“This being the largest graduating class in the program’s history shows that these women are dedicated to a life that is substance free and ready to contribute to society. My sincere thanks goes out to the sponsors, volunteers and everyone involved in getting these women rehabilitated.”

Fallin encouraged the graduates to carry forth into their communities the message that “it can be done. There is hope. You can change.” She praised them for becoming “successful, contributing Oklahomans” who work and pay taxes. Fallin affirmed, “All of us want to know that our lives count. … God allows U-turns.” 

Fallin revealed she often thinks of WIR when she reads the stories that accompany requests for pardon and parole, and noted that incarcerated women in the state “often have children.” She praised Steele’s passion for justice reinvestment, efforts to redirect some criminal justice system resources into programs of supervision and treatment. Her mention of Steele’s name provoked a standing ovation from the WIR graduates.

Mimi Tarrasch, director of WIR for Family & Children Services, related the structure of the program, distilling its impact with the story of a particular woman working her way through a transformational year with the agency.

Tarrasch said, “Isn’t it intriguing that 18 women who were in their addiction for a combined total of 228.6 years are proud to be sitting in front of you today in the beautiful Blue Room at the state Capitol?”

She described the women as “both remarkably brave and fascinating.” Not so long ago, “each one of them was living a life of despair while immersed in their addiction. They envisioned little or no hope of recovery nor were they able to see any hope for their future.

“To use their words, they feel like a lost cause, a failure as a person, parent, daughter, spouse, a failed human being. Many describe a feeling of being trapped, frustrated and unsure of their identity. They come with shame, embarrassment and a loss of personal dignity especially when entering the criminal justice system.”

She continued, encouraging her audience to “look at them now, capable, beautiful and bright women able to reunite with their combine 50 children and 17 grandchildren. Eighty-eight percent are graduating with their GED or high school diploma. Seventeen percent will be starting college this fall.

“All are working and paying taxes, but for one who is on disability,  and 22 percent have more than one job. These are beautiful, accomplished women whose lives are full of hope, renewal and gratitude.”

Tarrasch then went on to describe “Marie” as an example of effective use of the resources provided by George Kaiser and the Family & Children’s Services group. 

She said, “We met Marie after being addicted to meth for 20 years. Marie began using at the age of 12 after her mother refused to believe her that her stepfather had been sexually abusing her for over three years.

“When we met her she was facing 10 years for a drug crime. In lieu of incarceration, she was provided the opportunity to participate in Women in Recovery (WIR).

“Marie enters WIR with a GPS monitor, is on house arrest, receives frequent drug tests and is under strict supervision by Tulsa County Court Services. She is put in safe and sober housing away from known negative influences and unsafe environments. She comes to a nine hour a day treatment program where she faces her demons in therapy, learns how to overcome her addiction and gets mental-health services for depression and anxiety.

“Marie, like some, did not finish high school or have marketable skill to rely on in order to be self sufficient when completing treatment. Therefore, she started taking GED classes on site where she received extra math tutoring and participates in work-skill development. In addition to being sober, she had to learn skills to become self-sufficient. She now has the confidence and sobriety to begin a new relationship with her children. On-site parent educators and coaches provided education and support to aid in a successful reunification with her son and daughter.

“Marie and our 18 successful graduates are on a pathway to productive citizenship for a fraction of the cost of incarceration.”

Amy Santee, senior program officer for Kaiser’s foundation, reflected, “The Women In Recovery program improves public safety, saves taxpayers’ dollars, and most importantly it changes lives –- not only the lives of the participants but also the lives of their children. For it is the children whose lives will be devastated when their mothers’ addictions and mental illness go untreated, when she is unemployed, unengaged or absent. It is the children whose lives will be irrevocably changed when their mother is imprisoned.
“The Women In Recovery program offers an alternative to prison and an opportunity for a better life. The program is grounded in best practices and research around trauma, addiction, mental illness, criminal behavior and family reunification.”

Santee praised Tarrasch and the FCS staff, including Gail Lapidus, and went on to lift up “community volunteers, advocacy groups, non-profit leaders, faith-based organizations and business leaders, many of whom were laying the groundwork for change far before the program began.”

Santee also honored Fallin, Steee, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb and Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman for recognizing “that our criminal justice system is in need of repair and are actively promoting reforms to improve this system. Policy does matter; there is more that can be done to improve the safety of our communities, achieve better outcomes at less cost and with less human devastation.”

The full room at the Capitol for the commencement exercises included district attorneys, judges, public defenders, business leaders, community partners and supporters of the group. Tulsa state Rep. Jeannie McDaniel was there, along with another good Democrat – Carl Frederick of Shawnee.

Speaker Steele described his unexpected friendship Frederick in terms that resonated with the eclectic group of supporters of justice reinvestment ideas, but did not reveal the presence of his Shawnee neighbor until the end of his address to the graduates.

In prepared remarks, Steele said, “We commend these women for rising back up and fulfilling the rigorous requirements of graduation. They are inspirational individuals who are positive proof that there can be a better, more effective way within the criminal justice system.”
Steele is the sponsor of House Bill 3052, which is pending before the Senate with a handful of amendments from the original House version. The proposal blends ideas that have come from a diverse network of national organizations with long-standing interest in criminal justice reform, particularly the burgeoning costs of incarceration for non-violent offenses.
The Council of State Governments (CSG) worked closely with Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, in crafting the bill. Advocates have also gleaned ideas from “Right on Crime,” a conservative public policy group affiliated with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Note: Aran Coleman provided photos for this story.