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In Oklahoma, an alternative to prison for nonviolent women

Yvonne Estrada, Lacey Copenhaver, DaChelle Black and Diane Billings (L-R) are the first graduates from ReMerge, Oklahoma County's prison alt
Yvonne Estrada, Lacey Copenhaver, DaChelle Black and Diane Billings (L-R) are the first graduates from ReMerge, Oklahoma County's prison alt

By Steve Olafson

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - In the law-and-order state of Oklahoma, where more women are incarcerated per capita than any other state in the country, a graduation ceremony on Monday celebrated an alternative to locking up nonviolent female criminals.

Four women who completed an intense rehabilitation program were handed dismissal papers from the Oklahoma County district attorney that dropped the criminal charges that normally would have sent them to the penitentiary.

The hope is that after a year or more of therapy, the four women will turn around their lives and, in turn, avert their children from a path to incarceration.

Some, including Oklahoma's state prison director, Justin Jones, believe breaking the cycle of incarceration by focusing on rehabilitating young mothers is a sensible alternative to prison overcrowding and building more penitentiaries.

"If you really want to stop the growth of imprisonment in the nation and in particular, Oklahoma, you've got to look at the next generation," Jones said.

About 70 percent of the next generation of inmates are going to be the children of men and women now in prison, he said.

"Programs like this are really critical in stopping that cycle of incarceration," Jones said.

But it's a tough sell in Oklahoma, a politically conservative state that executes more condemned prisoners per capita than any other state, including its neighbor to the south, Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Oklahoma's prison system has been at 100 percent capacity for decades, Jones said, and 1,900 men and women who have been sentenced to the state penal system are being held in county lockups until there is room for them.

The numbers are projected to keep growing.

The female incarceration rate in Oklahoma stands at 121 per 100,000 population, compared with a national average of 65, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Oklahoma's high female incarceration rate is related to strict mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders, poverty and the state's historically weak response to child abuse and drug addiction, according to Amy Santee, a senior program officer for the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa.

"Their trauma started very early in life," she said, adding that "it's very difficult to access substance abuse treatment unless you have money."

The foundation has provided key funding for an alternative prison program called Women in Recovery that began in 2009 and is aimed at young mothers in Tulsa County. The Oklahoma County program, called ReMerge, is patterned on the Tulsa experiment. ReMerge is funded by non-profits and by state and local government agencies.

The programs in the two counties are expensive and intense.

They include group and individual therapy, housing, job training and transportation. The women take regular drug tests and are monitored using global positioning devices on their ankles, at least for some time.

Many women in the programs have been sexually or physically abused as children, are victims of domestic violence and are addicted to drugs or alcohol, program officials said.

In many cases, the women have lost custody of their children, are estranged from their families and find themselves without a support system, said Terri Woodland, program director of ReMerge.

"Oklahoma is behind," Woodland said. "It seems overwhelming. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd give them all a grandmother, and an aunt."

The four women recognized on Monday expressed gratitude for the help and hope for the future.

"I was completely broken," said Dashelle Black, 39. "Today, I have a driver's license that I didn't have for 12 and a half years. That's amazing to me. I have my own place and pay my own bills. I never thought I would make it back."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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