Where there is vision … women in recovery

by Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 02-Mar-2011

At a Tuesday conference in Oklahoma City on alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes, a mix of national and state speakers substantively tackled multiple practical issues. These included the cost of prisons, jails, mental health programs and various systems to divert some offenders from time behind bars and other policies costly to taxpayers and law-abiding citizens..

There were insightful efforts to capture and understand American social turmoil flowing from family structural challenges, economic stress and addictive behaviors. The conference brought forth meaningful suggestions on how all of the above effects public policy and the criminal justice system.

Presentations at the conference on “Effective Criminal Justice Strategies” were engaging, sometimes technical in nature, and of obvious utility for legislators, policymakers, state workers, foundation executives, journalists and others who participated. Workers with Tulsa’s Women in Recovery (WIR) program detailed the practical steps, including ankle bracelets and 24/7 monitoring, that help keep participants in recovery programs on the right path. But systemic details – as crucial as they will be to any Oklahoma reforms – were not the most memorable aspect of the conference.

In the final moments of the event, after hearing three powerful, emotional, wrenching and draining stories from a trio of women who detailed their lives and recovery from addiction, drug abuse and criminal convictions, Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb told a rapt audience at the Jim Thorpe Museum on Lincoln Boulevard, “I am a father. I love my daughter dearly and pray for her every night. I just can’t imagine what I would do if evil intersected her life. …”

Lamb stopped at mid-sentence and was unable, for a moment, to finish. When he could go on, Lamb pointed to the women with him on the dias and said, “These ladies are Exhibit A for the success of Women in Recovery.”

The ladies were Melissa Pruett, Candice Weaver and Kimberly Cummings. Each is a recovering addict and “veteran” of the criminal justice system who is now employed and paying taxes. Those weren’t always attributes of their lives.

Pruett is 31 years old. She grew up under the dominance of an abusive stepfather, enduring frequent sexual abuse from a young age. At the conference sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and Oklahoma Christian University’s Academy of Leadership & Liberty, Pruitt recounted, “At the age of 16, I was working sexually to support my [drug use] habit.” By the age of 21, she was involved in production of methamphetamine. She went to prison.

The particular circumstances of her case allowed law enforcement officials to give her options to participate in the Women in Recovery (WIR) program sponsored by Tulsa’s Family & Children’s Services, and funded by the Kaiser Foundation. In the relatively new program, she has learned “to eat healthy,” Pruett said. She also had learned “gratitude, patience, acceptance” and worked in therapy to conquer her drive to addiction.

Today, she said, “I am becoming what I always wanted to be.” She works 35 hours a week, and “has insurance for me and my child.” Pruett says “my meetings are my medicine.” She is a church youth minister and asserts her sessions in the WIR program “give me tools to get better.”

Candice Weaver, 28, recalled that before entering the WIR program nine months ago she had “no hopes and no expectations. I was a lost soul on the streets since the age of 14.” She was in prison by the age of 21 and began treatment while incarcerated in Mabel Bassett. After serving time, she fell back into custody of the Tulsa Police Department but was diverted to WIR. There, she has been under “strict monitoring and in recovery.” She said she has learned “boundary setting” from the program, and that the women involved “hold each other accountable.”

Weaver said she has changed “my old ways of thinking. My life does matter. I know I can change. Now, giving back is my priority.” The alternative to her new life, she says, “is prison.” Prison can be seductive to an addict, she recalled, as it provides “three hots and a cot. For an old addict, recovery is not easy.” She is passionate about not going back to prison, and says she has learned to be confident and self-sufficient. “I live without dependence on drugs.”

Weaver reports she is now “11 months clean.” She has two jobs, her own apartment, is paying her bills and “seeking reconciliation with my 11-year-old son.” She told the crowd at Tuesday’s conference, “This journey has not been easy. I am so thankful for this program.”

Cummings, 39, was part of WIR’s first graduating class. Like all women in the program, she is a mother. Her children are 18, 15 and 7 years of age. They are, she said, “still learning what it means to grow up safe.” Less than two years ago, Cummings said, she was involved in meth production and headed for prison. Apprehended, she faced a possible prison sentence of seven years, but had the option to enter WIR.

Now, “22 months later, I am clean and sober, after 23 years of addiction.” She is the executive assistant to the director of a mental health program in Tulsa, and reports, “I am receiving no government assistance, for the first time in 16 years. I am a healthy, loving parent and mentor-leader in my faith community.” Her life, she said, is “Christ-centered.” And, she has longer name as Kimberly Cummings-Thomas, a disclosure made with a bright smile that elicited gentle applause from listeners.

Lamb closed Tuesday’s event by quoting the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (King James Version, 29:8) The verse in the Bible concludes: “But he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

The lieutenant governor also praised Speaker of the House Kris Steele for his advocacy of the WIR model, and encouraged attendees at the conference to support effective models of criminal justice reform to save money, and save lives.