Life hasn’t been easy for Patricia Spottedcrow since she came out of prison five years ago.
I met her by chance nearly seven years ago while reporting on a Tulsa World series about Oklahoma’s long-standing No. 1 position in the rate of female incarceration. She arrived the day I was visiting Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft.
Spottedcrow was sentenced to 12 years on a first offense of selling $31 worth of marijuana in Kingfisher. She was 25, had four young children, no high school education and no previous arrests.
Her children, all younger than 10, stayed with her mother, Delita Starr, who had also been arrested but was kept out of prison on probation to be the guardian.
“Prison really opens your eyes to that no one really cares about you or your children,” Spottedcrow said in a recent interview. “My mom did an awesome job while I was gone. All these women had stories about not knowing where their kids are or so-and-so did this or their kids were split up. I was good.”
After publication, her case received national attention and grass-roots support to reconsider the sentence.
In 2011, a different Kingfisher County judge took four years off her sentence, and in April 2012 the Pardon and Parole Board recommended parole. Gov. Mary Fallin agreed but required a work-release program first.
Spottedcrow was released November 2012.
“I was really happy to be home. I was excited except something had changed. I can’t describe it,” she said. “The first few days I was at home, I’d look at my kids and think — I wasn’t happy or sad or mad or nothing. I had no feelings. When I came back, everything had changed. Everything I knew was all new. My parents are getting older; I never thought about that.”
Spottedcrow has been dealing with several mental health diagnoses, a lack of job opportunities, few housing choices, stress of a growing family and notoriety of her case while living in a small town. Recently, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, high-severe depression and ADHD.
In prison, Spottedcrow befriended an inmate who asked her to relay a message to her son who had been released from federal prison. After the two met, they fell in love, married and have two children, ages 18 months and 12 months.
“That’s the good part,” she said. “He’s an awesome dad, and that’s stuff I’m not good at. I don’t know what it is, maybe social anxiety.”
Spottedcrow splits her time between Kingfisher and Oklahoma City without a permanent home. Her family lives temporarily in a motel off an interstate in Oklahoma City. She said the felony drug offense makes finding permanent housing nearly impossible.
“I’ve never had Section 8 or HUD, but I need it now,” she said. “I even called my (Cheyenne and Arapahoe) tribe to help, and they didn’t. I called the shelters, and they don’t take large families.”
Spottedcrow’s oldest child, a 16-year-old son, and the two youngest children are living with them in Oklahoma City. The three other daughters are living with her mother in Kingfisher.
Her husband is an electrician and the family’s sole provider, including paying the court fines for Spottedcrow and her mother.
“I’ve not had a job, and I can’t find anything. I’m not going to look anymore,” she said.
Since Spottedcrow was first profiled, nothing has changed in Oklahoma regarding incarceration rates. Actually, it’s gotten worse.
The state’s rate of female incarceration continues to be the highest in the nation — more than twice the national average— which has garnered media attention from around the world. Currently, 151 women out of 100,000 are imprisoned in the state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Oklahoma has been at the top of the list for at least 25 years.
University of Oklahoma sociology professor Susan Sharp has been researching the state’s female incarceration rate since 1996, earning a reputation as the leading expert on the issue.
“There is much more awareness that our high female incarceration rate is problematic and that there is a negative impact on children,” Sharp said. “However, with our budget shortfalls, services are being cut even more, particularly those that would work, like drug treatment and trauma therapy.
“Inside our prisons, programs have been slashed and staffing is way too low. We have a good director now (Joe Allbaugh), but he cannot do enough because of the money issues.”
Lack of programs
During a meeting with the Tulsa World editorial board in October, Allbaugh said many of the prisoners — women and men — “grew up on the street.”
“Someone else was their surrogate father or mother, a lot of them with the gangs. You are not taught the things that we were all taught. You don’t come from the structure that we came from,” Allbaugh said.
Getting the “corrections” back into the Department of Corrections comes from programming to show inmates a better way of life after release. And nearly all will return to their homes.
The problem is there is very little programming available in prisons, which have been called overcrowded for years. Also, funding to Oklahoma agencies across the board has been cut due to multiple state revenue failures. Many prison programs come from outside sources such as nonprofits or faith groups.
Allbaugh mentioned the successful partnership with Tulsa Community College’s Corrections Education program. More than 500 inmates since 2007 have participated in the classes with 386 earning a certificate and 17 completing an associate degree. It expanded to the Turley Residential Center and Women in Recovery in Tulsa in 2009.
“Just that ability to engage in something that’s foreign to them changes their self-esteem, changes their behavior, and they have hope at the end of the day, that they have a plan. ... And most of those people, we’ll never see again,” Allbaugh said.
“But right now, we offer no hope in the prison system. Because they know they’re a warehouse component. They know it. They feel it.”
Three years ago, Sharp published the book “Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners” that lays out statistical and anecdotal causes leading women into prison.
It’s not that Oklahoma women are more criminal or meaner than those in other states. A lot has to do with priorities and attitudes.
Oklahoma ranks poor on spending for education, health and social service programs that are typically beneficial to women and children. Several national measures on the well-being of women place Oklahoma toward the bottom.
“What is needed is to intervene on women with addiction issues, mental health issues and lack of education,” Sharp said. “Oklahoma sends women to prison for things that other states do not, and Oklahoma has an inadequate substance abuse and mental health treatment system for those in the lower socioeconomic brackets.
“We could drastically lower female incarceration by providing more diversionary programs geared towards the needs of women. Stronger support for poor families, better educational opportunities, etc., would help.”
Sharp’s research shows rural areas tend to give poor women harsher sentences than those who have private attorneys. It also consistently shows incarcerated women have much higher rates of living in poverty and being victims of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes.
“We know what is needed and what works best — trauma-informed therapy and trauma-informed substance abuse treatment,” Sharp said. “But programs keep losing funding, so we have nowhere near the number of beds needed either inside or outside of prison.”
‘Defeated and trapped’
Spottedcrow didn’t stay out of prison. Her probation was revoked, and she was sent back for about two years and released in 2015.
The revocation came from getting married to a felon without permission and failing a drug test, according to Spottedcrow and her attorney. Provisions of her probation include not to consort with other people with felony convictions, not to use or possess any alcoholic beverage or enter any establishment where alcohol is sold, and pass routine drug tests.
Attorney Brenda Golden picked her up at the prison the first time she was released in 2012 and remembers her being happy and ready for a new start. She had plans of going to college or technical school to advocate for women.
“She was upbeat and gung-ho about helping other women who were in prison,” Golden said. “It was rough getting out. As she got back into society, she had a culture shock. Her kids didn’t connect with her for a while, and people knew her from her case. But with a felony on her record ... (her eligibility is limited) for student loans, public housing or federal social programs. There were no after-care programs to help her find resources for education or housing either.
“She felt defeated and trapped.”
Two violations have been reported on her case since then. One was in July on an arrest for not reporting to her probation officer because there was a miscommunication about her case being closed, Golden said.
On July 28, an officer was called to a domestic argument where Spottedcrow was present. In a DOC report filed with the court, the officer stated Spottedcrow admitted having drunk “a little” beer but was not uncooperative or arrested.
“I don’t think there is enough support for women,” Golden said. “Just like so many other women who have been to prison, Tricia feels she is trapped, depending on her husband to support her and her family. There are not enough programs for what women need to help them break the cycle of imprisonment. She just needs a program that would inspire her and give her a skill that would have her making more than a minimum wage. In Patricia’s case, minimum wage would not help a bit with supporting her six children because the costs of day care would be more than she makes.
“We don’t have that now in any way, shape or form.”
Golden said her experience representing clients in rural areas backs what Sharp has found in her research.
“What has to happen is these district attorneys working something out with women to develop programs as nonprofits or some kind of community efforts,” Golden said. “The DAs have to stop the mentality of ‘lock them up, lock them up, lock them up.’ They have to. I see it all the time, and I have a lot of women clients. The DAs seem to be extra tough on women for some reason.”
The harsh sentence was imposed on Spottedcrow because the marijuana was sold while children were in the house.
“Instead of therapeutic counseling or family services on a safety plan, they decided to prosecute instead of going with an option in the family support arena,” said Golden, who was not the original attorney. “The DAs out here, they have an in with judges, and judges tend to go along with what DAs recommend.”
Spottedcrow gets joy when talking about her husband and children but admits life can be overwhelming.
Going to prison didn’t correct any behavior or provide opportunities. She views it as the point where everything went downhill.
“Prison’s not rehabilitation. They did nothing but make me worse than what I was before.”
Rates of female incarceration
*Per 100,000 women
Source: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics