Tulsa program making it possible for women facing a life of incarceration to transform their future

TULSA, Okla. — For decades, Oklahoma has had the highest female incarceration rate of anywhere on the planet.

As of Dec. 2021, the state now holds the record for the second-highest number of female inmates in the country and in the world. Idaho is now the number one state that has the most women incarcerated, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 2009, Women in Recovery [WIR] is a program that was founded with the goal of addressing the issue of the overwhelming numbers of female inmates in Okla.

“WIR is an intensive outpatient alternative to incarceration for eligible women who are facing long-term prison sentences for drug-related offenses,” said Mimi Tarrasch, the Chief Program Officer for Women’s Justice Programs at Family and Children Services.

According to Tarrasch, WIR makes it possible for women to conquer substance addiction and recover from trauma. The program aims to empower women with the skills to live a productive and successful life.

“The course of the day is seven to eight hours long. It will start with therapy, it will have case management skills, it will have budgeting skills, GED classes, we teach healthcare, parenting classes and have on-site visitation for mothers. We have a whole range of employment-related classes,” explained Tarrasch.

One of the goals is to prepare the women for long and short-term careers.

Tarrasch describes the program as very individualized but also structured with high levels of accountability.

“We also have a string of enrichment activities. Addiction is a complicated brain disease. We want to be able to inform them on how to take better care of themselves,” said Tarrasch.

The participants are offered art lessons, yoga classes, Zumba fitness and meditation, to mention a few.

“We have a culinary program. Even if they don’t have a propensity for the hospitality industry, women will eat for the rest of their lives,” said Tarrasch. “Everything they use is based on a clinical, scientific evidence curriculum, to really make sure we are providing the best treatment.”

In pre-COVID, Tarrasch says that the entire program was about 18 to 19 months. Since the pandemic began, it takes longer as some of the work is remote.

“Graduation is a critical right of passage for everyone,” said Tarrasch.

They hold about three or four graduations a year. And the support doesn’t end when the woman completes the program.

“The door is always open, so we can continue to connect with them for whatever it is they need,” said Tarrasch.

Tarrasch states that services through WIR would not be possible without the support of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, generous donations and state funding.

They are also the recent recipients of the SIPPRA program. This award is performance-based. WIR only receives funding if participants of the program can achieve positive employment and child welfare.

“As a result of this new contract, we are going to increase, layer up our employment training and our placement services so that we can build stronger partners. We have to with this funding to really ensure that each participant, each graduate has access to stable and middle-wage jobs,” states Tarrasch.

How effective is this intensive program? Alexis Hamilton is a graduate of the program.

Hamilton had struggled with addiction for over 15 years. When she was 18 she was in a car accident. As she was recovering, she was prescribed pain medication.

“I realized I really liked the way they made me feel. I had it in my head that they made me do things better, go to school better, do my job better. It was a euphoric high,” Hamilton described. “I began just doing other drugs to get by sometimes. Sometimes it was Xanax, sometimes it was alcohol, but I felt I always needed something to feel that euphoria, that I had or that I was used to.”

Hamilton soon realized that there was a thing called withdrawal, and she didn’t know how to handle it.

“I thought that this was just the life that I had chosen. I thought that once you were addicted, you were addicted for life. And now I’ve chosen this mediocre life that I was never going to amount to anything,” said Hamilton.

After Hamilton found methamphetamine, her life accelerated into a chaotic downward spiral.

“I lost my job, I lost my apartment, I lost my child, and really in my head [I asked], ‘Why quit? What do I have?’” said Hamilton. “I had been arrested about 12 times. I couldn’t find a job because I couldn’t find any clothes to wear to the interview. I didn’t have a place to shower. I didn’t have transportation. It was hard. How do you get control of everything all at once? How do you get enough sleep the night before when you don’t have a place to sleep? So, it was just a tumultuous chain of events that kept me at rock bottom.”

In May 2016 Hamilton was seven months pregnant and was arrested.

“I gave birth to a little girl when I was in custody at David L. Moss,” said Hamilton.

While Hamilton was awaiting trial, she started her journey at WIR.

“I think the moment I stepped in the door was life-changing. I remember I didn’t have an I.D., my social security card. I had some shorts and a tank top, which were the clothes on my back. And I walked in there to this beautiful clothes closet where I was able to pick out clothes that I could wear in our casual, professional environment that we had to dress for,” said Hamilton. “Then, they took me to the kitchen where there was a chef on-site who had this amazing spinach salad with these fresh vegetables, with feta cheese and grilled chicken. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is unreal.’ I’ve just spent five months in David L. Moss, this is the greatest meal I’ve ever had.”

WIR also assisted in the process of reunification with her daughter.

“We were able to do Child-parent psychotherapy through Women in Recovery to establish a bond that is still unbreakable to this day. I’m so forever grateful for that,” said Hamilton. “I was also able to do therapy with my seven-year-old son. He did experience some trauma, of course through living with me and my addiction. We were able to do therapy and bond and it was amazing. It was invaluable.”

One of the things she was taught was how to talk about her background at a job interview.

“That was one of the most important things for me because that’s difficult. How do you tell someone about that?” said Hamilton.

She now works for a marketing company.

“I actually got that job when I was in the program and I’ve moved up, I’ve been promoted a couple of times. And they as well have been completely supportive in my recovery and been with me every step of the way,” said Hamilton.

WIR also brought a new addiction into Hamilton’s life, fitness. She began to practice yoga and do Zumba classes.

“That is my euphoria now. And I go for runs at night if I’m having a bad day,” said Hamilton.

The classes on building healthy relationships were extremely eye-opening for her.

“Many of us have not been there before in a healthy relationship and now I’m married to a great man, who supports me and knows about my past. He is there for me every step of the way,” said Hamilton. “We met on an online dating site. That was another difficult conversation to have. How do you tell a guy that you like, ‘Hey, so I’ve been arrested a lot of times and I have a criminal history, but you know, that’s okay because the right one understands.”

Hamilton describes WIR as, “Unbelievably, life-changing. After graduation, I got married. I got a house. I got custody of my children back.”

With stories like Hamilton’s, Tarrasch knows that WIR’s program works.

“It’s a smarter and more effective and better way to promote public safety for moms, for families, and for children. We hope in the very near future that we have really been instrumental in the [ongoing] decline in women going to prison in Tulsa County,” said Tarrasch. ”Over the course of years, we have really helped drive down the high rates of female incarcerations. This is significant. Our state has struggled for about two decades with having the highest rate of female incarcerations in the country and in the world.”

Hamilton knows that it is more than possible to exist in a world of dark addiction and to work towards a life of joy, true euphoria and freedom.

“Your past doesn’t define you. Through Women in Recovery I’ve actually been able to get my entire record expunged and you can run any kind of a background check that you want and it will be clean. That’s incredible! That puts me at a level that I didn’t ever think I would be,” said Hamilton. “I think this is an incredible opportunity for women in recovery. I don’t think my story alone could never tell the countless ways that it has helped the women in my community.”

To date, WIR has had 586 graduates.

2,057 children have been impacted.

There are currently 80 WIR participants.

To learn more about Women in Recovery contact Family and Children’s Services or call 918-947-4200.