Long Road to Recovery and Redemption11/01/2014 by Molly M. Ginty
It’s Jessie’s third day back since her relapse earned her a short stint in jail. In a sun-dappled meeting room at Tulsa’s Women in Recovery (WIR) program, she chokes back a tear and reaches for the tissue box in the center of her group’s ring of chairs.
“I’m ashamed that I started drinking again, but I’m grateful that I got caught,” she says. “Being forced to go back to prison reminded me that what I really need is to stay here. The threat of losing all I’ve gained was a big reality check. Addiction is powerful, and you can snap right out of recovery if you let your guard drop and forget to watch yourself.”
As Jessie* describes her battle with alcoholism and the demons that brought her to this alternative-to-prison-sentencing program, she slumps in her chair and hides her grey eyes behind a veil of blonde hair. But when the women in her group address her directly, her shoulders straighten, her chin lifts, and hope flickers across her flushed face.
“When you were talking about your fight with addiction, I pictured a skilled boxer studying her opponent and carefully preparing for the next move in her fight,” says social worker Elizabeth Franklin, who facilitates this eight-member weekly counseling group on the topic of “seeking safety.”
“That’s how you have to think of addiction,” agrees Alison, a fellow WIR client with soft, amber eyes. “Fight it. And know we’re here to help you in whatever way you need.”
Battling on behalf of women in crisis—and working to give them what they need—is the mission of Franklin and the three other social workers at Women in Recovery (WIR), a nonprofit program that invites female offenders in Oklahoma—the state with the highest incarceration rate among women—to complete an intensive program of counseling and self-improvement in lieu of serving prison time for nonviolent felonies.
Breaking the cycle
Child abuse. Domestic violence. Addiction. And repeated incarceration. Social workers address all these ills. And WIR’s team is working to help clients tackle these problems, and to break the cycle that keeps them wreaking continual havoc in clients’ lives.
Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma and funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, WIR has an overarching mission: to stem the tide of violence that is landing a record number of women behind bars. The female prison population in the United States has spiked sixfold over the past 30 years, reports The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. But studies show women offenders can reform themselves and contribute to society instead of continuing to commit crimes—if they receive the type of support and intervention that WIR offers.
Before entering WIR, clients in this program were caught committing nonviolent offenses (their most common charge was drug possession, followed by drug distribution, then assault). Each client faced a prison sentence in Tulsa County that ranged from two years to life. But instead of serving time, these women agreed to join WIR’s innovative program and undergo 12 to 16 months of intensive rehabilitation.
In phase one, WIR clients move into housing provided by the program, and share apartments with other new clients. They wear ankle bracelets with global-positioning-system monitors that track their every move. And step by step, they work to prove to the program’s administrators that they are ready to advance to the next stage. In phase two, they are allowed to pursue paying work, to move into their own apartments or houses, and to resume contact with their children (some of whom are in foster care, and some of whom are at this point living with friends or relatives). In phase three—after they and their children have undergone family and “reunification” counseling—they’ve earned permission to have their sons and daughters live with them under the same roof.
How quickly a woman moves through the program’s three stages—and whether she makes mistakes that could lead to her expulsion (as Jessie’s drinking bout threatened to do until WIR’s administrators absolved her)—all depends on her individual situation. Each woman works on her recovery at her own pace. But regardless of her trajectory, she has one trait in common with the 100-plus other women who are WIR’s current clients: she is wrestling with ingrained habits that have brought her to a crisis—and a possible turning point—in her life.
“At the time they were arrested, 95 percent of our clients were unemployed,” says Mimi Tarrasch, WIR’s director. “Nearly 70 percent had a history of being sexually or physically abused. More than 30 percent had served time in prison before. And the majority were struggling with alcoholism or the abuse of methamphetamine or other drugs.”
As WIR clients wean themselves off meth, malt liquor, and the outbursts of violence that landed them in the Tulsa court system, their social workers challenge them to begin addressing the trauma that underlies their dysfunctional behavior. Clients examine themselves—and re-pattern themselves—through individual counseling, group counseling, journaling, and twelve-step recovery meetings.
“Women say that what we demand of them is much more difficult than serving a prison sentence,” says Catherine Claybrook, a licensed social worker who heads WIR’s team of six counselors. “Not only do they spend up to 12 hours a day here. But they have to face their pasts—and look at themselves and their problems—in an entirely new way. We help them finish school, develop job skills, and overcome their addictions. But just as importantly, we help them hold their pain. We help them sit with it. And we help them crawl through it so they come out on the other side.”
In WIR’s bright space at Family & Children’s Services —a glass-paneled, six-story building just north of the Broken Arrow Expressway in Central Tulsa—the morning begins with clients and staff members bustling up and down the carpeted hallways, exchanging warm hellos and clutching file folders full of paperwork that they use in their therapy sessions.
On this late-summer morning, it is Claybrook’s turn to lead the first group of the day.
Today’s session is about criminal and addictive thinking. As group counseling at WIR often does, it starts with clients reading self-report check-in sheets. Each woman takes a turn verbalizing her goals for this session (“to explain my past, to understand my drug use”); her affirmations for the day (“I am strong; I am resilient”); and her feelings at this moment in time (“I am angry, and yet I am optimistic and feeling grateful”).
As they move around the circle, women describe the issues they are facing on this particular day and the behavior they are working to address in themselves.
Sophie, wrapped in a blue hoodie and perched on her chair with her knees drawn up toward her chest, confesses that she wants to call an ex-boyfriend with whom she feels she is obsessed. “What would calling him bring you?” asks Claybrook. “Attention,” says Sophie. “But that sort of attention, like this sort of guy, is really just no good.”
“What can you do to give yourself positive attention instead of picking up the phone and calling him?” Claybrook asks.
Sophie drums up ideas about how she can focus more attention on herself, and perhaps seek attention from people who she considers emotionally healthy. As the women around her start offering suggestions about what she could do instead of calling her ex, her body uncurls, her feet root to the floor, and she shoots Claybrook a shy smile.
The group moves on to Juanita, who is sprawled on the couch in a tee shirt and cargo shorts that reveal the tattoos encircling her limbs. “My little brother is in the hospital today,” she says. “And I really want to go see him. But this would also mean seeing my father, who is manipulative, probably still dealing drugs, and just not healthy for me to be around.”
Juanita shifts on her cushion, and heaves a long sigh. “My whole life, my father has never seemed to care about anyone except himself. Despite that, I still love him. And now that I’m sober, I feel like I love him even more than I felt like I did when I was using.”
Claybrook pauses, then asks Juanita a series of probing questions. “What parts of your father do you love? What would happen if you gave yourself permission to love him? And how can you love him and still take good care of yourself?”
After Juanita brainstorms and drums up her own solutions—doing so, as usual, with feedback from the whole group—she says she won’t be visiting the hospital for now.
As the session draws to a close, the women scoop up their pens and papers and speed out the door to make it in time to their next appointments. Over the course of this week, they will head to parenting classes, nutrition counseling sessions, free checkups offered by volunteer dentists, and food-prep training in WIR’s on-site cafeteria. Women who have a few minutes of free time now—a rarity at WIR—begin clustering outside the program’s clothes closet, rummaging through racks of donated items to root out shorts and sweatshirts to wear at yoga or Zumba dance classes later on.
Tarrash sits cross-legged in a trim black skirt in an office near this morning’s meeting room. She grabs a yellow notepad, and with her tangerine-lacquered nails flashing, sketches a series of interlocking circles on the pad’s lined paper. “These represent all the components of our program,” she says. “Treatment. Health. Education. Children’s services. Recovery support. Housing. Case management. Then, to top it off, after care.”
“After care” means that once a woman completes WIR—a feat 168 women or nearly 70 percent of enrollees have achieved so far—she can choose to remain connected to the program. Over the phone, staff members check in with every graduate once a month. Veterans (some of them strolling through the halls this morning, well-groomed and all but indistinguishable from the program’s staff members) voluntarily return to the site to mentor current enrollees. They also return for once-a-month open houses, once-a-week group sessions, and lunches that are free for current and former clients. “They come back,” says Tarrasch, “because staying connected to this lifeline helps keep them healthy and out of prison.”
Recovery and empowerment
Nibbling a lunch of couscous, chick peas and salad greens—all of it freshly prepared at WIR’s cafeteria across the hall—the program’s four social workers gather in a conference room to compare notes on the work they do as individuals and as a team.
“Social work’s mission is to instill hope and enhance well-being,” says Claybrook. “That’s what we do here. But we’re especially careful to do it by first instilling a sense of safety. We don’t tell our clients what is right or wrong. Instead, we work with their ambivalence, and let them decide what is the best course of action to take. Juanita, for instance, had a sense of ambivalence about seeing her father again. When we talked the situation through, she decided that keeping her distance from him was best for her at this time.”
Franklin nods in agreement, then sets her fork gently on her plate. “Our work is about empowering each woman to decide what’s healthiest for her,” she says. “One of the clients who I’m meeting this week has struggled for years to navigate her relationship with her mom, who is also a recovering addict. This client came to realize she could no longer be around her mother if her mom was using again. The three of us had a group conversation about this. But it was my client who took the lead by defining what her ground rules were, asking her mother not to break them—and asserting that she could no longer have direct contact with her mom if those boundaries were not upheld.”
Social worker Chris Krumm notes that for many women who are entering WIR, there is no clear sense of what a “boundary” is. Over the course of the program, however, women “develop a sense of pride in their ability to recognize their needs, stand up for themselves, and learn to say ‘no’ for what may be the first time.”
As they work to help WIR’s clients recognize their own needs, each social worker brings her own unique set of skills to this process. Franklin, in her 20s and the youngest of the group, specializes in art therapy, helping women give nonverbal expression to feelings that can be difficult to convey in words. Chris Krumm, a veteran social worker with a lush mane of silver hair, focuses on breath work, guided meditation, and alternative practices. Claybrook, the team’s leader, has a gentle, patient persistence that keeps her clients—and her colleagues—on track.
The final member of the social-work team is redheaded Merrie Knox, whose brash laugh and wisecracks help to keep it real.
Merrie Knox can face down problems that many others would find daunting because her hardscrabble life has earned her the right–and the ability–to do so. A child-abuse survivor whose ex-husband was a heavy drinker with violent tendencies, she sought counseling in her 30s, broke free of her abusive relationship, and earned her master’s degree in social work at the age of 50. She landed her first counseling job at Family & Children’s Services—the organization that houses WIR—and then, after working there for three years, took her current position at WIR. For the past two years, she has brought her grit and fierce humor to the service of clients who are overcoming the very same destructive behavior patterns she once struggled with herself.
At WIR, Franklin, Krumm, Claybrook and Knox counsel women who are recovering from wrongs they have done to others. One client, for instance, told her children she was ducking out to buy cigarettes, only to disappear on a drug binge for a full week. The social workers also help women who are recovering from wrongs that were done to them. As a child, another client was charged with holding her mother’s tourniquet while she shot heroin, only to witness her mother overdose and die in front of her.
“More than anything else,” says Claybrook, “these women are also recovering from the wrongs they have done to themselves.
To live up to its name and to help its clients achieve full recovery, WIR focuses not only on female inmates’ needs, but those of their children, too. “The cycle of crime and incarceration profoundly disrupts the lives of their sons and daughters,” says Tarrasch. “When you talk about female offenders, you really can’t take their children out of the equation.”
Compared to fathers in prison, mothers in prison are more likely to have children who are living with relatives; who spend stints in foster care; and who eventually succumb to substance abuse. Studies show these children are up to seven times more likely than their peers to wind up behind bars—unless the cycle in which they’re caught is broken.
Studies conduced by WIR on its outcomes indicate that the program slashes its high-risk clients’ recidivism rates by 55 percent, and their levels of emotional, alcohol and drug problems by 54 percent. Researchers at the University of Oklahoma are examining how WIR affects its clients’ children—who are a focal point of discussion in group and individual therapy sessions—and hope to publish study results on this soon.
“If there was more support for programs like ours, countless generations of criminal and addictive behavior could potentially be avoided,” asserts Claybrook.
Costs would also be slashed. The prison system in the United States is a $39 billion-a-year industry. Putting a woman behind bars runs anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 a year, reports the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group in D.C. However you do the math, prison is significantly more expensive than the $23,000 to $26,000 it takes for a client to complete the WIR program (with the added benefit that this program may prevent a woman’s children from landing in prison, too).
Because WIR’s unique approach is having such a profound and positive impact across generations, this fledgling program is serving as a model for other trailblazing initiatives across the United States. Sister programs—also started in recent years—include ReMerge in Oklahoma City and Shields for Families’ Exodus program in Compton, California.
Over the next several years, Tarrasch and her team hope to segue from having most of their $2.6 million annual budget covered by the Kaiser foundation to becoming a broader-based “pay for success program” —one that receives other government and grant funding in amounts that correspond to its proven successes.
With anywhere from 25 to 40 women on its waiting list, WIR is poised to grow. Its administrators are currently preparing to move to a new office space that will offer double the square footage of WIR’s current facility.
With her relapse now behind her and new challenges waiting ahead, Jessie says she looks forward to growing alongside—and as a result of—the WIR program. “I can be a better person if I practice what I’m learning from the counselors here,” she says. “Just as importantly, I know completing this program will help me be a better mom.”
*The names of all Women in Recovery clients have been changed to protect their privacy.