Improved access to mental health care in Oklahoma could help reduce female incarceration, advocates say
Written By: Mollie Bryant
Pictured: April Wilkens/Inmate at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center
(TULSA, Okla.) April Wilkens, 52, has served more than 20 years in prison on a life sentence for the murder of her ex-boyfriend, Terry Carlton. Wilkens told Verified News Network in March that Carlton stalked and abused her, and on the day he died, he had beaten and sexually assaulted her.
In a parole questionnaire from last year, Wilkens said that she shot Carlton to protect herself from another attack. She also said that Carlton had put her in handcuffs that morning, and she was still wearing them when she shot him. The Tulsa World reported those details during Wilkens’ trial in 1999.
Records show Wilkens has been denied parole several times. Her next opportunity to seek parole is in 2025.
As in most states, Oklahoma’s criminal code doesn’t offer reduced sentencing for abuse survivors. Only Illinois and New York have such a law, and The 19th reported last year that they rarely result in shorter sentences.
But unlike most states, Oklahoma incarcerates women at stunningly high rates. As of 2020, Oklahoma had the second highest female incarceration rate in the country, with the state imprisoning women at a rate more than twice the national average, according to The Sentencing Project.
Lawyers and other legal experts say that women in Oklahoma are punished more harshly than men for crimes involving child neglect or abuse – in some cases, when they never actually committed abuse.
Imprisoning mothers breaks up families, which advocates worry enables a generational cycle of trauma and incarceration to continue.
Women who are incarcerated are more likely to live in poverty, need mental health treatment and have a history of drug dependance. Incarceration disproportionately impacts Black Oklahomans, who were imprisoned more than four times as often as white residents, according to 2019 data analyzed by The Sentencing Project.
Advocates say female Oklahomans need better and earlier access to resources like mental health care and substance use treatment to prevent more people from becoming involved in the criminal justice system in the future.
And some are concerned that a focus on female incarceration ignores the agency of women and the reality that Oklahoma imprisons residents of all genders at high rates.
Men less likely to be prosecuted for enabling abuse
If their child is abused by another adult, parents in Oklahoma can receive a felony charge alleging they failed to protect their kid from the abuse. The maximum sentence for the crime is life in prison, and past efforts in the state legislature to reduce the sentence for failure-to-protect crimes have failed.
Meagan Taylor, program director for the Oklahoma County Diversion Hub, previously worked as a lawyer in the district attorney and public defender’s offices. During her career, she said, she has never seen a man receive a failure-to-protect charge.
“That’s kind of super alarming to me, and I think it also perpetuates a serious divide in families because I think there’s just as much of a duty for the father or the father figure, whoever that may legally be, to protect the child as there is for the mother and mother figure,” she said.
The ACLU of Oklahoma data showed that 1 in 4 women who were convicted of failure to protect received harsher sentences than the abuser, and at least half were also abused by their partner.
One mother, Tondalao Hall, served 15 years of a 30-year, failure-to-protect sentence, while her children’s father, Robert Braxton, spent two years in jail awaiting trial for child abuse and was released on time served.
In 2007, Elizabeth Crafton was sentenced to 20 years in prison for failure to protect. Hall and Crafton both said their partners had abused them, as well.
In February, a Cleveland County district judge sentenced Rebecca Hogue to 16 months in prison after she was convicted of first-degree murder under the state’s failure-to-protect law. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections had recommended no prison time for Hogue, whose boyfriend, Christopher Trent, had killed her 2-year-old son while she was at work in 2019. After the killing, Trent died by suicide at the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge, where he’d carved a message into a tree that Hogue was innocent.
Colleen McCarty, executive director of the Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Tulsa, said that aside from charges of enabling abuse, she sees women charged disproportionately for child neglect.
In some cases, she said, Oklahoma Department of Human Services investigators identify issues that are more likely a result of poverty than neglect. For instance, a parent with multiple jobs may not have time to clean their home as thoroughly as a parent who has more time or financial resources.
“Essentially DHS workers come to life with their own filters, just like anybody else,” McCarty said. “I do see women disproportionately being prosecuted for child neglect charges that often are just grounded in the criminalization of poverty.”
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Madison Melon works in the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office as an assistant public defender supervising the county’s diversion programs. She said the court system sometimes treats mothers facing substance use disorder differently compared to fathers in similar situations.
“There’s a lot of, ‘Well, why are you out doing X, Y and Z when you should be taking care of your kids?’” she said. “I don’t think women get harsher sentences necessarily because of that, but maybe some more judgment. I don’t ever hear someone say that to a man.”
Incarceration of mothers separates families
Advocates say many women swept up in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system have experienced childhood trauma that led them to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to cope.
Being incarcerated is an additional trauma on top of that, said Shiann Copeland, director of programs for ReMerge, a diversion program in Oklahoma City that serves eligible mothers.
“They’re removed from their children’s lives, causing more trauma to their children,” she said. “Then, I think the guilt of all of that is such a heavy burden. Even after the moms have come here to ReMerge and they’ve done so much healing and all these amazing accomplishments and hard work, you still find them trying to make up for the time that they’ve lost with those children.”
When mothers are incarcerated, their children may be raised by another family member or enter the foster care system, which places siblings at risk of being separated.
“It’s not like when we take a child out of a family that they immediately get into an amazing situation, that they are being taken care of, their mental health is being addressed, their trauma is being addressed,” Taylor said. “That’s just not the reality for most kids, especially for the kids who are being taken out of these cycles of a family distraught with addiction, trauma, mental health (issues), poverty.”
Copeland believes mental health care and other support for kids as they’re developing could be one way to reduce incarceration down the line. In her own life, she credits a high school coach with mentoring her and driving her to pursue a college education.
“Some of the moms we have here, I could never imagine having experienced (what they have), but I can imagine that if they would have had someone intervene that they would not have ended up here,” Copeland said.
How diversion programs can help women stay out of prison
I am intelligent. I am beautiful. I am strong. I am funny. I am hopeful. I am confident. My children are lucky to have me. I am a fighter. I am fierce. I am loved.
Each week, ReMerge participants repeat a different list of grounding affirmations during a standing meeting dedicated to celebrating their victories. The women cheer each other on as they get new jobs, driver’s licenses or mark other accomplishments.
“For the first time, a lot of these women are being told that they’re valuable and worth something and they can do so much that they’re being given hope,” said Melissa Walton, ReMerge’s director of community engagement.
ReMerge serves mothers who are facing nonviolent felony charges in Oklahoma County, are at high risk of reoffending and unlikely to recover from addiction and leave poverty without help and treatment. Mothers who begin the program are usually dependent on a substance and have long-term, unmet health and mental health needs, Walton said.
The intensive program, which takes about a year and a half to two years to complete, includes access to wraparound services, therapy, at least 90 days of supervised housing and classes on parenting and other topics. Graduates who haven’t completed high school or an equivalent program are required to obtain a GED. They receive job training and learn soft skills, budgeting basics and how to live independently.
“Two years is a short amount of time in their span of life, but so much can change in that time when they’re just given the chance to really take on new opportunities and have a different life,” Walton said.
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Roxanna Viezcas, continuing care coordinator for ReMerge, completed the program in 2019 and began working for the nonprofit a year later. She helps graduates after they leave the program with anything from help with a utility bill or flat tire to training and fellowship during a monthly group meeting.
Growing up, Viezcas said, her main goal was survival. ReMerge changed how she thought about herself and helped her learn to work toward goals in her life and career.
“What I appreciated the most was the staff, how much they devoted and how much they really supported me and helped me change because no one’s ever done that,” Viezcas said. “That little bit of caring and pushing me to go to school, pushing me to look for a job and helping me to believe in myself, that I can do this, got me to where I am today.”
She aims to help the mothers in ReMerge learn they’re capable of achieving things they never knew they could by trusting the process and the program’s staff. She knows that kind of trust isn’t easily given.
“It’s really hard when you’re coming from the streets and you’re in survival mode,” Viezcas said. “You’ve been let down, (had) promises broken. … That’s one of the hardest things you can do is trust somebody that you do not know.”
After completing the program, ReMerge graduates reunite with their kids, and the court dismisses their charges. A judge also has the option to waive court fines and fees they may owe.
Since ReMerge began in 2011, 166 mothers have graduated from the program and reunited with more than 400 kids. Based on the sentences they could have served for their charges, ReMerge estimates its program has saved the state more than $39 million.
Another diversion program based in Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma County Diversion Hub, serves people leading up to their trial or during probation by helping them navigate the court system and gain stability.
“We know that if we can quickly wrap them around services, we can be that resource hub for them to come to when maybe something happens and they fall off the path,” Taylor said. “The hope is they come here instead of spiraling and then ending up back in the system because the system isn’t forgiving.”
While Oklahoma has gained attention for decades for its incarceration of women, Melon thinks the focus is misplaced. We should work toward incarcerating every group of people less, not just women, she argues.
“There has been progress in accepting formerly justice-involved people back into society, but I think that we still have such a long way to go in … being able to understand how people are capable of change,” Melon said. “It is like they’re in a separate caste of society, and it just shouldn’t be that way.”
This article is part of a collaborative project with Verified News Network, a news organization based in Tulsa. It was funded by the Oklahoma Media Center with support from the Native American Journalists Association.
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CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Melissa Walton, ReMerge’s director of community engagement.
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