When moms fight back: Stories from the Capitol
(OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.) It was one story of survival after another during an interim study on criminalized survivorship at the state capitol Tuesday.
The study, proposed by Rep. Toni Hasenback (R-Elgin), examined the issues surrounding victims of abuse and why they are incarcerated when they fight back.
For a majority of the study’s speakers, many of whom are mothers, the matter was personal.
Brandy Alexander came straight to the study from Mabel Bassett, having just been released from a 21-and-a-half-year sentence that morning.
She told attendees she went to prison for neglect when she was just 19 years old after taking her child to the hospital for meningitis.
“There’s people in prison for self-defense that I’ve grown up with, basically,” Alexander said. “There is proof that that happened but like they said if you don’t take this (plea deal) you’re going to prison for life.”
It’s not an idle threat.
There has been a 20 percent increase in life sentences for Oklahoma women from 2008 to 2020.
One in every 10 women in Oklahoma prisons are serving a life sentence, up from 1 in 15 back in 2016.
Child abuse and neglect are the most common convictions amongst women in Oklahoma prisons.
Like a majority of incarcerated women, Alexander had been abused before she went to prison. She moved out of her home when she was just 13 years old.
“I was physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abused by nine people because of my mom,” Alexander said.
Alexander said she had never gotten into any kind of trouble before her arrest.
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Oklahoma currently has the second highest female incarceration rate in the nation, and most of those women (85 percent) are moms.
Jasmine Sankofa is with fwd.us. She said 11 percent of Oklahoma kids have had an incarcerated parent.
66 percent of incarcerated moms were living with their kids at the time of their arrest.
Disproportionate incarceration by race
For Native American women, the incarceration rate is higher than any other ethnicity.
According to 2020 data, the imprisonment rate for Native American and Alaska Native females ages 30 to 39 was more than 430 per 100,000, the highest among all females. Data showed Native American and Alaska Native females were 4.3 times as likely as white females to be in prison at yearend 2020.
(McGirt ruling impacts on female incarceration rates have yet to be reported.)
Brenda Golden is an attorney and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Golden said her mother was five years old when she was sent to an Indian boarding school. Ripped away from her family, she said her mother never learned how to love.
“We didn’t have love,” Golden said. “No one told us that we were loved.”
Golden said she sent herself to an Indian boarding school when she was 14 years old to escape the abuse at home.
She later joined the Air Force, took up with the minister’s son, and went to college. The first time he punched her she was holding their baby. Golden said she never saw it coming.
“Once he got away with it the first time, it became worse,” Golden said.
Golden said violence and abuse is so common in Native American communities that it has become normalized.
“In my case, everyone knew what he was doing to me,” Golden said. “My family. His family. Everybody in the community. ‘There’s Brenda with a black eye again, there’s Brenda with bruises all over her again.’”
Her cycle of abuse continued until she stabbed her ex in the leg. She said after that he took off and never returned.
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Across the US, Black females (65 per 100,000) and Hispanic females (48 per 100,000) were imprisoned at higher rates than white females (38 per 100,000) in 2020. Experts say it is due to the stereotype of minority women being strong and angry.
Low-income women are also viewed as tough, perceived unlikely to be truly victimized. In fact, the opposite is true. People living below the poverty line are actually more likely to experience some form of abuse.
“Those women in poverty have the greatest incidence of violence,” Golden said. “We experience ten times the ‘normal’ rate of violence in Native American populations.”
Oklahoma is number 8 in the country for women killed by men
Margaret Black is VP of Clinical Services for Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) in Tulsa.
Black said domestic violence is the highest rate it has been in 20 years.
Despite a great need for emergency services, there isn’t enough help for those who need it. She said they recently surveyed domestic violence resource providers across the state. Out of 50 percent that responded, they discovered 82 requests for service were unmet. A majority of them were requests for emergency shelter.
“I think for us in this room to consider how use of force might be a last resort and utilized in these cases, it’s important to acknowledge the lack of those emergency services available in our community and our state,” Black said.
Black said abusive relationships create an increased risk of incarceration for the victim because survival strategies like self-defense, addiction related to trauma, and parental kidnapping to protect children are routinely criminalized. Use of a weapon is also deemed excessive force, despite unequal size and strength compared to their abuser.
Senior Director of Specialized Training at YWCA Oklahoma City Brandon Pasley said the number of homicide victims stemming from domestic violence is only increasing.
“And we are punishing survivors for using the only methods they have to protect themselves and their children,” Pasley said.
Oklahoma attorney Colleen McCarty initiated Tuesday’s study on behalf of the Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
She and fellow attorney Leslie Briggs co-host “Panic Button”, a podcast that promotes awareness of the April Wilkens case, which both women discussed during Tuesday’s study.
Wilkens is currently serving the 25th year of a life sentence for killing her rapist and abuser Terry Carlton.
Despite 14 police reports, three protective orders, and two substantiated rape kits filed over the course of his abuse, Carlton was only arrested one time.
“She has maintained her story and every single piece of that has been substantiated by external evidence,” McCarty said.
“This case happens to be one of the most corroborated cases of abuse and self-defense that I have ever seen,” Briggs added.
Helping criminalized survivors
Leigh Goodmark is the Marjorie Cook Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Frances King Carey School of Law. She said the cycle of abuse is still poorly understood by the general public, and domestic abuse is often not deemed a credible offense due to the assumption that women “have so many ways of getting away”.
Goodmark also said the court system doesn’t bother to ask female criminal defendants if they are victims themselves.
Her research has found over 80 percent of married women who committed a crime did so with their husband. More than 70 percent of coupled women committed a crime with their boyfriend.
100 percent of those women said they had been abused by them.
At the end of the line, parole is not a viable solution for female freedom in Oklahoma.
Experts said by that time, the context of victimization has been written out of their persona as an offender.
Women like Wilkens haven’t stood a chance at getting paroled, despite jurors believing they will during deliberations.
At the top of Tuesday's list of necessary solutions was more resources for victims of domestic violence.
Christie Luther founded R.I.S.E. She said their program, which teaches incarcerated women cosmetology and provides other support necessary for re-entry, has a 100 percent success rate.
Another solution could be departing with mandatory minimums in cases of domestic abuse, like Illinois and New York.
Alexandra Bailey is an end life imprisonment strategist for The Sentencing Project, a survivor of her own horror story.
“You want to know why I didn’t fight back?” Bailey said. “Why I took it? Because I know the law. I know the law. I write reports about it. About this type of law, in particular, actually. So I knew that I was married to smart, wealthy, white man. And I am a Black woman. And that my choices were fight back and maybe the system fails me and my whole life is gone. Or take it and hope I survive. Now, I escaped with a seizure disorder from mild brain damage, which will heal. And I’m lucky. I think as legislators, you need to ask yourselves, if that should be the definition of ‘lucky’ for women in your state.”
Bailey urged lawmakers to enact a Domestic Violence Survivor Act in Oklahoma.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Bailey said. “This is a moral issue.”
Similar acts in other states include more judicial discretion on sentencing domestic violence survivors who are convicted of a crime related to their abuse, alternative sentencing, and retroactive re-sentencing opportunities.
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