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Women in Recovery program in Tulsa succeeding with treatment instead of punishment

A Tulsa-based public-private partnership, Women in Recovery, is a pilot program for alternative treatment programs lawmakers are considering enacting elsewhere in Oklahoma in order to alleviate the state's prison crisis.
BY JOHN ESTUS Published: December 12, 2010

Deanise Smedley went straight back to drugs when her first stint in an Oklahoma prison ended.

“Coming out of prison, your self-esteem is so low and you're so beat down,” Smedley said.

Arrested again on more drug charges, Smedley was sent to a state drug court designed to let nonviolent addicts serve their sentences outside the prison system so they can treat their drug addictions.

But like the prison programs Smedley took before it, drug court didn't work. Smedley relapsed.

“I fell right back into my old habits,” said Smedley, 36.

Further treatment programs proved ineffective and Smedley kept using and wound up back in court, bringing with her all the accompanying costs of processing her through the state's criminal justice system.

Her tale is emblematic of Oklahoma's prison crisis: Drug use sends a woman to prison, where treatment fails and as a result she keeps using and winds up back in the criminal justice system.

It's a common cycle in Oklahoma, which has the nation's highest female incarceration rate.

42% jailed for drugs

About 42 percent of Oklahoma's female prisoners are there because of drug offenses, Department of Corrections data shows.

However, a new alternative sentencing program designed to combat the female incarceration problem is reporting fast success.

Women in Recovery is a Tulsa-based public-private partnership offering alternative sentencing for women. About 60 women are in the program. Since it started a year and a half ago, 14 women have graduated from the program, which hopes to be serving 100 women at once by the middle of next year.

State lawmakers passed a bill supporting the program this year and expect to pass more laws like it next year as they look for ways to alleviate the strain on the state's prison system.

Lawmakers are talking a lot about being “smart” on crime, and they're pointing to programs like Women in Recovery when doing so.

The program is where Smedley is now.

She was arrested again — more drug charges — but says the program has given her hope she can turn her life around.

“I've been in prison, 30-day programs, 90-day programs, many programs. The difference between this program and the many others that I've been to is this is the first program that has ever said, ‘You're worth it,'” Smedley said.

The first rule of Women in Recovery is there are no rules.

No magic formula, no checklists, no standard operating procedures.

Instead, the program takes an individual approach to each woman enrolled in it — a far cry from the preprogrammed regimens of most conventional and alternative sentencing programs.

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