POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2011:
A Way Out
Women In Recovery offers non-violent offenders new life
She hasn't taken her new bracelet off since the graduation a few weeks ago. Melissa Pruitt absently fingers the silver bracelet adorned with six charms for the six phases of the Women in Recovery Program.
"It's something to reflect on, the past 15 months of accomplishments," Pruitt said, gently touching the charms on her slender wrist.
Pruitt, 31, recently graduated from the Women in Recovery (WIR) program, a two-year-old public-private partnership and prison alternative that reforms, educates, heals and counsels non-violent female offenders.
Oklahoma has the highest rate of incarcerated women per capita in the nation, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. This isn't a new development -- Oklahoma's had this dubious distinction for 14 of the past 15 years.
The majority of these women are non-violent offenders (65 percent), who more often than not leave children behind (85 percent). Forty-two percent are sent to jail for drugs, according to the Department of Corrections.
Many of the women arrested had a childhood history of abuse and poverty. Pruitt was no different. She felt like she was the only one suffering from a difficult past and the anger that often comes with that.
She didn't get the therapy she needed until WIR took her on.
Therapy is one of the primary features of WIR. In group sessions, Pruitt began to deal with her emotions, and feel less alone. "I found out the other women had gone through a lot of the same things, especially sexual abuse," she said.
She said she couldn't have afforded therapy otherwise.
Fifteen months ago, she was finishing up a dental hygienist program at Community Care College when she was arrested for "endeavoring to manufacture" methamphetamine.
Pruitt's uneasy relationship with drugs began at age 11. At 31, she's clean and finally free. Off drugs and on therapy, she was able to let her body "grieve," she said. "I started releasing all this stuff."
She'd been masking her feelings with drug use for twenty years.
The change in her physical appearance speaks volumes. Sitting at a conference table at WIR headquarters on the second floor of Family & Children's Services, Pruitt is bright, talkative, pretty and put-together in a cute work outfit.
She talked to UTW on a break from her new full-time gig as a leasing supervisor at the Mental Health Association.
Before she made breakthroughs in therapy and got a full-time job, Pruitt was in David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center.
She'd been incarcerated for three or four months, she said, and was ready for a change. "At that point, I was at the lowest low of my life and very suicidal. I would not have made it through prison and was desperately seeking help," Pruitt said.
Then she heard other inmates talking about WIR. So, Pruitt, her mother and grandmother began writing letters to get her out of prison and into recovery. In the end, her attorney contacted Mimi Tarrasch, WIR's director.
Currently, 86 women are enrolled in Women in Recovery. Pruitt was part of the third "class" of women (about a dozen or so) to graduate from the program.
While it's an alternative to prison, women are on house arrest, are supervised 24 hours a day and wear GPS ankle monitors, said Tarrasch. They are watched on screens in the basement of the Tulsa County Courthouse.
When they start the program, every moment of their day is structured with tight curfews and high accountability. As they go along, depending on how well they do, the women are able to work more hours and stay out a little later.
"These are non-violent female offenders who need the opportunity for recovery and employment and to be parents again, and this is at no risk anywhere to anyone," Tarrasch said.
So who gets picked for Women in Recovery? Tarrasch said they developed an assessment in conjunction with the University of Tulsa that measures motivation and cognitive skills. "If they do meet the criteria, we work with their attorney and judge to find a time they can start," Tarrasch said.
Accountability was difficult in the beginning for Pruitt. "It couldn't have been me who got me here," she laughed, "Oh no, it was everybody else's fault."
Fifteen weeks into the program, she had to start over again after she was caught keeping secrets for an old friend. Starting at square one again, she decided to wholeheartedly re-dedicate herself to recovery.
This meant taking advantage of all the classes WIR offered, including: yoga, nutrition, relapse prevention, scrapbooking, résumé building, personal relationships, parenting and others.
A New Leaf.
WIR focuses on training women for the workforce, and currently has partnerships with 10 businesses, like the Hyatt Regency Tulsa. A lot of the women take on front desk, housekeeping or other entry-level duties, while others work in human services (like Pruitt) and manufacturing.
WIR also has an employment specialist on staff to coach the women on good work habits. After graduating the program, they'll need to earn a living wage so they can support their children. "Without it, there's no opportunity for ongoing sustainability," said Tarrasch.
When Pruitt was arrested, her toddler was left essentially motherless. Luckily, her 85-year-old grandmother was able to step in and take care of her little girl. While she was away, Pruitt also learned how to parent in new and constructive ways.
Laura Garrison is the program's parenting educator, and supervises visits between children and their recovering moms. She also teaches women about how to handle their children's unique needs.
"When the women come into our program, they often don't know where their kids are, they don't know if they have any parental rights at all," Garrison said.
From there, Garrison locates the children and slowly begins the process of visitation. She also educates moms on how to handle their traumatized children. "Anytime they're separated from their mom, it's a trauma," she explained, "So we want to prepare the women for that and for what trauma looks like in kids."
The next step is for the women to learn new, healthy things to do with their children. WIR has a bright playroom complete with books, Play-doh, building blocks and puzzles, where children can interact and bond with their moms during visits.
"Every woman who comes into the program wants to be the best mom," said Tarrasch. "They might have chosen addiction before their children previously and they are dealing with that guilt, but we are making sure that everybody is working on a healthier parallel road."
Before she was arrested, Pruitt was using drugs, wasn't working and in some ways, was neglecting her little girl. When her daughter wanted something to eat, she might put her off for awhile, then give her a hot dog. Now, she said proudly, "I cook her a whole meal and it's balanced."
Pruitt keeps her daughter on a regular schedule these days.
In 2009, WIR got off the ground with a private grant from the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Amy Santee, the foundation's senior program officer, said they wanted to address the high rate of female incarceration in Oklahoma "very, very purposefully and intentionally."
Santee said the foundation supports re-entry and has invested mostly on "the diversion end" of the criminal justice system, and supports "keeping families intact."
"Elected officials locally and outside of Oklahoma have really taken an interest, and want to meet the Pruitts and see change," Santee said.
On graduation night, Pruitt said that when she was arrested, she realized, "Everything that really mattered was gone. We all felt really broken, used and misunderstood."
In order to graduate, all participants must be drug and alcohol free, crime-free, employed, actively participating in community recovery support, engaged in reunification plans with their children and meeting all legal and court requirements.
Little by little, Pruitt rebuilt her life, harnessed her emotions and re-established a healthy relationship with her family and especially her daughter, she said.
As she recounted her graduation night, Tarrasch said, "You give me goosebumps."
"I do?" Pruitt asked. "Because I'm real?"
"I'm the real deal," she said.
Pruitt has regained full custody of her
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