70 Million

Putting Women Already in Jail First

Episode Summary

Oklahoma locks up women and girls at a higher rate than anywhere else in the US. Black mothers bear the burden of this crisis, which can curtail accessing public benefits and lower the chances of keeping their children. But a promising new public defender's office in Tulsa have found a way to change some women’s fates. Reporter Nissa Rhee goes inside a women’s jail for our story.

Episode Notes

Oklahoma locks up women and girls at a higher rate than anywhere else in the US. Black mothers bear the burden of this crisis, which can curtail accessing public benefits and lower the chances of keeping their children. But a promising new public defender's office in Tulsa have found a way to change some women’s fates. Reporter Nissa Rhee goes inside a women’s jail for our story.

Episode Transcription

Mitzi: Hey, 70 Million listeners, we want to learn more about you. We’d love it if you could take a few minutes to fill out our listener survey. We want to know how you listen to 70 Million, what you love and what we could work on. You can find the survey at 70millionpod.com/survey. I took it and was done in about 5 minutes. Just go to 70millionpod.com/survey. And thanks in advance for helping us out.

Musical interlude.

70 million adults in the United States have a criminal record. I’m Mitzi Miller and this is 70 Million -- an open-source podcast about people, and communities, taking on the broken criminal justice system. This season, we'll chronicle how local jails compound the problem, and what residents are doing about it. 

Montage: “Here I am with the judges and attorneys and, you know, police officers...” 

“You can have the most beautiful resume and they’re still going to label you as a felon.”

“I wanted to be able to, to dig in, roll up my sleeves and figure out what could be done about this issue.”

“You’re not letting us be human, like, you’re not letting us just be regular girls.”

“For 20 years all I heard was shut up inmate. And now all of a sudden I have a voice.” 

Mitzi: Women are the fastest growing population in jails today. Over the last 50 years in the US, the number of women in jails has gone up 14-fold. 

And while certain cities and counties have successfully reduced the number of men behind bars, little has been done about the skyrocketing number of incarcerated women. 

For this episode, we’ll be reporting from Tulsa, Oklahoma, a state that has the highest incarceration rate in the country. For women, things are particularly bad. The state incarcerates women and girls at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. 

Justin: We’re going to be entering into one of the more secured areas of the jail, which we call Down Range here at David L. Moss. 

Mitzi: From the outside, you’d have a hard time guessing that the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center is actually a jail. There’s no barbed wire or watchtowers. But once inside, you begin to get a sense of the scale of incarceration here. Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Green explains.

Justin: The facility may not look as big as it actually is from the outside, but if you notice this hallway that we’re looking at is actually a quarter mile long from here down to there. 

Mitzi: The jail is designed to house up to 1,700 inmates. But overcrowding has gotten worse since 1970. The county’s incarceration rate has risen nearly 200 percent since. Back then, there was an average of 8 women in the Tulsa County Jail on any given day. By 2017, that number had climbed to over 300. 

Justin: We’re going to enter into this one room, it’s called F18. This is one of our female pods. 

Mitzi: In this episode, we’re going to learn about an innovative new project that’s addressing the growing number of women in Oklahoma’s jails and prisons. From Tulsa, reporter Nissa Rhee has our story. 

Nissa: The women’s pod at the Tulsa County Jail is two stories tall. Cells with bunk beds circle the edges, and there’s a large common area in the center, where the inmates can fight boredom by watching TV or chatting at round tables. Separated from their children, it's a lonely place for mothers to stay. Just ask Kami Barrett. 

Kami: I have a daughter that’s five, a daughter that’s eight and a son that’s nine.

NIssa:: What’s the hardest thing about being a mom in jail?

Kami: Not being able to see my kids, that’s the hardest thing, yeah. Considering that I had them every day, now I don’t have them at all. That's what sucks.

Nissa: Kami’s kids are staying with her ex and her sister right now. This is her second time in jail this year. 

Kami: Well here it is, I’m here again. So this is only the second time I’ve been in trouble in my life, in my whole life. But this time I’m done. I said that last time, but this time I’m really done. I’m not coming back into here.

Nissa: Kami’s been charged with possessing a stolen vehicle and drugs. Most of the women here are in for low-level, nonviolent charges like shoplifting or failing to pay court fees. Many of them, like Kami, could walk out of jail today if only they could put together enough money to pay their cash bond. 

Kami: My bond’s $5,000, but I don’t know anybody to bond out. So here I am sitting here again until I go to court. And then when I go to court they’ll probably end up letting me plead guilty again, and they’ll probably let me out on a suspended sentence or something.

Nissa: Kami’s talking about getting community supervision or probation instead of jail time. In Oklahoma, that’s what happens to most women who plead guilty. They pay a monthly fee to the court system and complete certain requirements, like parenting classes and rehab programs to stay out of jail. If they miss a class because they don’t have childcare --  or they have to buy food for their family instead of paying their monthly court fee -- they’re sent right back to jail.

Kami: A lot of women like me, they want to change, they just don’t know how or they don’t have the strive or the -- the option or somebody to be there to help them, like push them to change. That’s what I need, is somebody to be there, actually to push me to change.

Nissa: Women coming into the criminal justice system face very different challenges than men. They’re more likely to have a history of trauma and abuse and have higher rates of mental health and substance abuse disorders. They’re also more likely to have been the primary caretakers of their children before going to jail. Nearly 80 percent of all women in jail are mothers. Many of them are single parents or the primary breadwinners for their families. 

Even a short time in jail can be devastating for a mother and her family. She might lose her job, access to food stamps and even Medicaid. Her children are often placed in foster care. Siblings may be separated, schooling can be disrupted, and with a mother in jail, these children experience trauma at higher rates than other kids. What’s more, kids with parents behind bars are six times more likely to enter the criminal justice system themselves. And the numbers are worse for children of incarcerated mothers versus fathers. So the soaring rate of female incarceration is not just a woman problem. It’s a community problem. And that requires community solutions.

North Tulsa is dotted with dollar stores and boarded up buildings. The average life expectancy for people here is 12 years less than that of people living a few miles to the south. Their lives are being cut short by poverty and poor access to food and health care. 

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 destroyed what had been the wealthiest black neighborhood in the country. The city’s black residents were pushed up here to North Tulsa. And some say the community has never recovered. It’s here, in a mostly abandoned strip mall, that a new organization is trying something different -- to help women caught up in the criminal justice system.  

Robin: I’m Robin Steinberg, and I’m the director of Still She Rises Tulsa. You know, it’s a unique law office in that it’s the only public defender office in the nation that is dedicated exclusively to the representation of mothers.

Nissa: Still She Rises is a project of the Bronx Defenders, a public defender office in New York that Robin helped found in the 1990s. The group pioneered what is known as “holistic defense” -- a 360-degree approach for people facing criminal charges. Mothers who come to Still She Rises don’t just work with one attorney. They’re encircled by a whole range of staff who support in all kinds of ways. 

Montage: My name is D’Marria Monday, and I’m a client advocate at Still She Rises.

My name is William Lonn, and I’m an attorney at Still She Rises.

My name is Ruth Hamilton. I am the legal director here. 

My name is Catherine O’Neill, and I am a client advocate at Still She Rises. 

My name is Kristen Black, and I’m a social worker at Still She Rises. 

My name is Harrah Howard, and I am a community reception coordinator here.

Harrah: The beautiful thing about our office here is that we're a team. When a woman comes in and she is assigned an attorney, she's also assigned an advocate. She has a team of people that will follow her from the beginning of her walking into the door until her case is closed. And so it's not just, we're fixing the issue as far as a crime, but we are looking at the whole person and what they need. 

Nissa: Harrah’s the first person you see when you walk into Still She Rises. She gets to work at 8:30 every morning, and she says it’s not unusual for people to be waiting outside when she arrives. Many are upset.

Harrah: I mean they’re literally in tears and they’re scared, they’re frightened, but they’re laughing and they’re just having a good time by the time they leave here. And I think that is because of the atmosphere that we have created. 

Nissa: Harrah keeps a children's play table by her desk where mothers can leave their children while meeting with their attorney or social worker. There’s a changing table in the bathroom and two chests full of baby formula and kids’ clothes in the back kitchen. 

Harrah: I have literally -- I’ve held a baby, I’ve put a bottle in a baby’s mouth, I’ve fed a baby, I’ve rocked one baby to sleep at the same time I’ve answered the phone. And so we really love, love, love it. 

Nissa: First Harrah talks to a potential client to find out if Still She Rises can work with them. Then she’ll bring in an attorney or client advocate into the mix. The team works together to figure out what each woman needs to stay out of jail and to thrive. Catherine O’Neill is a client advocate. She provides a broad range of services.

Catherine: Apply for food stamps, apply for SoonerCare, have attended meetings with DHS to try to keep their children in their care. Have helped them apply for housing, have helped them get into treatment programs. 

Nissa: Linda Meachum, a 57-year-old grandmother, is Catherine’s client. 

Linda: Still She Rises…they were there, you know, at the fork in the road where I could’ve been no more or I could be, I am. 

Nissa: Linda was one of the first women Still She Rises connected with when they opened in January 2017. 

Linda: I was fixing to be sent to prison to do the term of four years.

NIssa: She’d been incarcerated in the county jail.

Linda: I had a warrant for failure to comply with my probation rules and regulations and that warrant was a felony. 

Nssa: One of the ways Still She Rises finds their clients is through the public records of who’s been brought into the local jail. Attorney and Director of Operations Kristina Saleh explains: 

Kristina: We track that jail system and we note when somebody has been booked in. And hopefully within 24 to 48 hours we are sitting down with them and talking to them and finding out if they may be eligible for our services.

Linda: Still She Rises came and interviewed me as a potential client and I said, yes, I do need your help. After they told me, you know, what they were doing, that they were attorneys to help underprivileged people in North Tulsa, of which I am, to, you know, get straightened out. 

Nissa: To be eligible, the person must identify as a woman and be a caretaker for a child. So Linda, who’s raising her two granddaughters, qualified. By getting to new clients so quickly, Still She Rises is able to start working on their cases before traditional public defenders would, and get women out of jail faster. 

Kristina: There is a significant delay between the moment of arrest and the moment when your case gets actually quote unquote gets going. That process takes about six days. And those are six days where somebody who does not have resources to be able to pay bond is just by default, by the fact that they don’t have the money, they're sitting in jail and waiting. 

Nissa: Tulsa, like many places, uses a bond schedule to determine how much money a person has to pay. The bond amounts are based on the charges, not on how much money they can actually afford. So many poor women end up sitting in jail for weeks or months waiting for their case to be resolved, despite being legally innocent. Studies have shown that people held in jail before their trial are three times more likely to be sentenced to prison than those who’re set free. Kristina says that’s one of the reasons Still She Rises tries to get to clients so quickly.

Kristina: And then being able to immediately start working with them about seeing if there’s some way that they can make bond. If they can’t make bond, asking for, asking a judge to hear us on whether or not bond is appropriate in a situation like this. Whether or not it’s necessary to ensure their ability to return to court. And often times it’s not. 

Nissa: Linda was just the kind of vulnerable woman Still She Rises wants to reach. She had been to prison twice before. She was in jail this time because she couldn’t pay her court fees and fines from previous cases. The Sheriff’s department had sent her case to a collection agency, and when she still couldn’t pay, she was arrested. 

As a survivor of domestic violence, Linda says she had serious medical problems that kept her from working full time. She was getting by on less than $250 a month with a mix of food stamps and income from helping an elderly neighbor with housework. Linda was assigned Still She Rises’ Legal Director, Ruth Hamilton, as her attorney. 

Linda: I said, well just ask the judge to give me another chance. And that was my defense. Ruth took just those words, ‘give me another chance,’ and defended me. 

Nissa: Linda ended up spending just 8 days in jail. 

Linda: It was miraculous, you know, to me because I didn’t think that I was going to get to come home. And I have two gorgeous granddaughters. They mean everything to me.

Nissa: In the year that Linda has been free, Still She Rises has helped her get her life back on track.

Linda: Um, I did, um, a 60-day rehabilitation program. This girl right here, Catherine, she made sure I got there. She made sure I was taken care of up until the point. She took me places to get clothes and stuff to take with me. And it was just no reason for me not to go and succeed at that, of which I did. It was hard, but I did it.

Nissa: Linda says that after a tough spell, her life is looking up.

Linda: My quote when I came home from rehabilitation. I would state my name, like in AA group meetings. I would say, ‘Hi, I’m Linda raised from the dead. And still she’s rising.’ Yeah, so that’s me. I’m still rising thanks to Still She Rises.

Musical interlude. 

Nissa: In its first year and a half, Still She Rises defended over 430 mothers. Sixty percent of them were women of color and the majority of them would qualify for public assistance, like food stamps. Their services are completely free for clients, unlike traditional public defenders that may charge fees. And instead of being publicly funded, they’re supported by foundations and private donors. Attorney Kristina Saleh says their goal is to give clients first-class care regardless of their background.

Kristina: We want to be able to show them that we’re here to fight next to them, and that we are ready to do what it takes to make sure that they have every advantage that they would have had had they been able to pay for the most expensive attorney in town. 

Nissa: Still She Rises fights hard for every woman they represent. But they know that sometimes that won’t be enough and bad things can happen to their client or her children. So they’re thinking about the big picture, too.

Robin: You can’t look at any part of our criminal legal system without looking at, sort of, racial disparity. 

Nissa: That’s Executive Director Robin Steinberg again.

Robin: And so you need to really think about, sort of, what’s going on in the given system that you’re in. What are the racial impacts and disparities that you see? What are the economic disparities that you see? Right, and you begin to realize how much in this country we’ve criminalized race and poverty, and how we have set the criminal legal system to, sort of, criminalize people for either their race or their poverty or both. This is less of issues about character or personal flaws and failings and much more a question about systems at play, both systems that failed and the current criminal legal system that is clearly failing.

Nissa: One of the ways Still She Rises addresses the failures of the system is by being a voice in public discussions about criminal justice reform. Oklahoma laws are some of the harshest in the nation. People convicted of drug possession here serve sentences that are twice as long as the national average. So they’re keeping a close eye on laws that would impact their clients.

Truancy meeting: So chronic absent total 8,539, which is 25 percent. Chronically truant 6,714…

Nissa: Still She Rises’ attorney Patrice James spoke recently at a meeting of Tulsa’s Truancy Prevention Task Force. The group was formed this spring after a city Councilor proposed a new ordinance that would fine parents up to $500 per day or send them to jail for up to six months if their kids don’t show up to school. After an outcry from parents and advocates, the ordinance was tabled and the task force was formed to come up with alternatives. But James argues that even those alternatives, like mandatory parenting classes, come with costs for clients like hers.

James: A lot of what we’re finding in Tulsa, a lot of things that courts order people to do like drug tests and parenting classes, people are still paying for those. Whether it’s 10 dollars here or 15 dollars here. When you have zero money, that means something. 

Nissa: Arguing against punitive responses for crimes can be hard in a place where they’re seen as the best solution. But Still She Rises has had some success. Earlier this year, they had their first major legislative victory. They helped make Oklahoma the 24th state in the country to pass legislation that prohibits the shackling of women during childbirth. The organization also brought on an attorney to focus on filing lawsuits aimed at system-wide change. But all of this work in and outside the courtroom has earned Still She Rises some detractors. Chief among them?

Larry: Bail bondsman. They hate ‘em. They don’t like change. They, uh, fear the future.

Nissa: That’s Larry Edward Watson, the owner of Alliance Bail Bonds in Tulsa. He’s been a bondsman since 2010 and inherited the business from his grandfather. Still She Rises has been vocal about the impact of cash bail on their clients. Robin, the Executive Director, also heads up the Bail Project, a national fund that bails poor people out. While the two organizations are separate, the Bail Project has helped some of Still She Rises’ clients, and many believe they’re one and the same. But Larry says he stands apart from his fellow bondsmen who fear the end of cash bail -- and the end of their industry. 

Larry: I'll flip a burger, I’m not worried. 

Nissa: Ok, you’ll do something else. 

Larry: Yeah. 

Nissa: And it sounds like you were doing something else before this, so. 

Larry: Yeah, I’ve been doing something before, and I'll do something different after. 

Nissa: And he says his experience with Still She Rises has been nothing but positive.

Larry: Oh, they’re great people. I love them to death. They help my ladies out who are mostly in North Tulsa. And a lot of my girls make a misjudgement in their particular situation and they find themselves on the opposite side of the law. They help them quite a bit. 

Nissa: He’s had 15 or so clients from Still She Rises since they opened. He says like most of his clients, they don’t make their payments to him on time. But they generally stay out of trouble and for that he is thankful.

In the Tulsa County Courthouse two blocks away, former Assistant District Attorney Tammy Westcott acknowledges that Oklahoma has a problem with female incarceration. She says that the DA can play a role in reform.

Tammy: What we need to do differently is have a different philosophy in the district attorney’s offices. It should not be an incarceration-driven philosophy.

Nissa: But Tammy says that the hands of the District Attorney are tied. 

Tammy: The DA has to follow the law, whether it’s a woman, a man, a mother, a father, a single person, a married person. You have the facts of the case and the evidence and the law that applies to the facts of that case and the evidence. So you have to charge appropriately and you have to follow the law.

Nissa: The Tulsa County Sheriff, Vic Regaldo, has a different take on Still She Rises. A 23-year veteran of the police department, Vic used to patrol the streets of North Tulsa. 

Vic: You know, it's too early to say whether or not this was successful or not. Um, it's too early to tell, but even if it's not, I think that we still have to keep an open mind to different ideas, different ways of reducing female incarceration and men as well. 

Nissa: But the Sheriff also has some suggestions for the group.

Vic: The one advice I would give them and anybody else is a positive partnership with law enforcement is critical. And to everybody, not just Still She Rises, is get rid of the politicizing of all of this. We have to come together whether you are on the left, the right or in the middle.

Nissa: Of course, politics does play a role in the criminal justice system and the high levels of female incarceration here. Whereas sheriffs and district attorneys in places like Houston or Chicago have played an active role in pushing for reform, it’s clear that there’s no appetite here for that kind of activism. DAs in Oklahoma have actually pushed back against reform efforts in the past few years.

Since being elected, Sheriff Regaldo has faced several lawsuits. One calls the Tulsa County bail system a “wealth-based detention scheme.” Another is a class-action lawsuit involving Still She Rises’ client Linda Meachum. The lawsuit claims that there were constitutional violations and corruption in the way her and others’ court-related fees were handled.

While Still She Rises aims to change the way mothers are represented in the criminal justice system in Tulsa and beyond, their clients’ goals remain much more humble. To find a way to pay all the fines and fees the court demands. To get out of jail. To see their children again.

On a humid afternoon, on the front steps of a house in North Tulsa, I meet one more Still She Rises client. 

Johnetta: I’m Johnetta. 

Nissa: Johnetta just got back from a shift at Burger King and a trip to the grocery store. We’re not using her last name because of her ongoing case. She’s joined by a dog and her young daughter. 

Nissa: And you’ve got this lovely little girl here. 

Johnetta: 2 year old. And one on the way.

Nissa: Johnetta was incarcerated last year for 12 days before she was able to post bond. She didn’t qualify for a public defender and a private lawyer would have cost her $2,000. Her sister recommended that she go see Still She Rises.

Johnetta: They helped her with her case, too, and they got her into counseling and she’s got a place for her and her kids now. 

Nissa: Johnetta went to the Still She Rises’ office and was assigned a lawyer. After almost a year of fighting her case and talking to staff at Still She Rises every couple of weeks, she pled guilty. She’s now on probation. And is glad Still She Rises helped her get back to her daughter. 

Johnetta: Yes, I would recommend it to single mothers that need help, that if they get in trouble or something like that. I would definitely recommend Still She Rises. 

Nissa: For women like Johnetta, Still She Rises offers free, vigorous, holistic representation where they had none before. The group says they’ve succeeded when every woman they defend feels they were treated with respect and dignity. No matter the legal outcome of the case, if their team has swung for the fences every single time in every form of advocacy they could possibly provide, they feel they’ve won. And sometimes that’s enough.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, I’m Nissa Rhee For 70 Million.

Mitzi: Thanks for listening. Now we want to hear from you. Have you, a friend or a loved one experienced the impact of jails? Are you active in local reform? Do you want to recognize someone in your community who’s been an agent of change? Email us at hello@70millionpod.com or call us at 202-670-4912. 

For more information, visit 70millionpod.com. We’re an open-source podcast, so we invite you to use our episodes, transcripts, syllabi, and resource guides in your classrooms, organizations, and anywhere they might be useful. You may rebroadcast parts of or entire episodes without permission. Just please drop us a line so we can keep track.

70 Million is made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

The podcast is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co. It’s edited by Jen Chien and mixed by Luis Gil. Our associate producer is Oluwakemi Aladesuyi. Our marketing specialist is Kate Krosschell. Our resource guide writer is Amy Alexander. Special thanks to Paula Mardo for production assistance. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the creator and executive producer. I'm Mitzi Miller. 



Rhee, Nissa, reporter. “Putting Women Already in Jail First,” 70 Million Podcast, Lantigua Williams & Co, September 17, 2018. www.70millionpod.com