Amy Santee, the author of this guest blog, is Senior Program Officer with George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa.

In my last blog post, I posed the following question: “Is it not better public policy to provide these (incarcerated) women with treatment and the tools to become better parents and productive citizens?”

Well, Women In Recovery (WIR) is the answer to that question. WIR is a pilot diversion program that Family & Children’s Services (F&CS) and the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) have built together that provides an alternative to incarceration for women in Tulsa county.

Oklahoma’s female incarceration rates have long been the worst in the country, yet little has been done to improve the situation for women in our state. GKFF has identified the problem as an area of top concern. Through “start up” funding provided by GKFF, Family and Children’s Services initiated a pilot program based on best practice and evidence-based models to offer a cost-effective, holistic approach to diverting female offenders from incarceration. WIR has established unprecedented collaboration with the local Office of the District Attorney, Office of Public Defenders, Tulsa County Court Services, Tulsa County Criminal District Judges, and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

This highly successful program is in the process of expanding its capacity to serve up to 100 women, and subsequently their hundreds of children.  These children’s lives have been directly affected by their mothers’ substance abuse and the attendant criminal activity. The demand for services continues to grow as evidenced by the many referrals from local judges, attorneys and Tulsa County Court Services.  To date there have been 63 admissions and the daily census has grown from 8 women in June 2009 to 49 in September 2010.

Initial outcomes of the program are quite promising:

  • 100 percent of current participants have attained safe and stable housing; are working toward improving their health, well being and self sufficiency; and are working to achieve family reunification;
  • 63 percent of current participants have become employed;
  • 86 percent  of the total of 63 admissions have avoided incarceration to date and 100 percent have not committed a new offense.

After the program’s first year, six women have successfully completed WIR and have had successful reunification with their children.  A condition of graduation from the program is employment, to ensure self-sufficiency, and each of these women have begun to partake in an aftercare support program that aims to foster their long-term success by offering support with budgeting and finances, employment coaching, and continued recovery support groups   In addition, the program believes that it is important that each of these women gives back to WIR and help future generations of program participants.

The benefits of WIR do not stop with each individual woman and their immediate family. WIR saves Oklahoma ongoing annual costs related to incarceration; reduces the loss of taxpayer dollars due to unemployment; and reduces health care costs. Oklahoma’s habit of imprisoning women rather than treating them is expensive, ineffective and damaging to children, both short-term and long term.

In the 2010 legislative session, Oklahoma passed HB2998.  This bill directed the development of pilot programs to reduce the high rate of female incarceration through the adoption of evidence-based practices and proven strategies.  Both Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties have begun development of these programs at both ends of the spectrum, partnering with state and local service providers.  I am firmly confident that HB2998 was the beginning of a series of powerful pieces of legislation about this critical issue and am confident that more progress will be made during the 2011 legislative year.

I have directly witnessed the impact that Women in Recovery is having.  Mothers who faced charges that would land them in prison for decades of their lives have been successfully rehabilitated through substantial mental health, trauma informed services and substance abuse treatment. They have re-entered the workforce, become reunified with their families, and built a safe home.   I do not want to make this process sound easy, it is far from that.  These women work exceedingly hard to rebuild their lives.  I am touched each time I visit the program and see the changes that each of these women have made in their individual lives. I hope that this program will be replicated to serve even more women and also change Oklahoma’s status of incarcerating more women per capita than any other state or country.

The opinions stated below are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.