TAFT - Wearing prison-issue yellow clothes, Patricia Spottedcrow reflects on her first year in prison through the lens of tears and determination.
One year ago, on the week of Christmas, the first-time offender was checked into the Eddie Warrior women's prison - the first holiday away from her four young children.
"I cried and cried just thinking of my kids opening presents on Christmas and I wasn't there," she said. "This year, it's going to be any other day. I try not to keep up with days in here."
At her mother's home in Kingfisher, there is a somber tone among her children - ages 2, 4, 5 and 10.
"We're crying here too," said her mother, Delita Starr. "We'll try to make sure there is money in her account for a phone call. What else can we do?"
Spottedcrow, 26, was arrested and charged for selling $31 in marijuana to a police informant in December 2009 and January 2010. Starr, 51, was also charged.
Because children were in the home, a charge of possession of a dangerous substance in the presence of a minor was added.
In blind pleas before a judge, Spottedcrow received a 12-year sentence and her mother received a 30-year suspended sentence. Neither had prior criminal convictions.
The judge sentencing the two said she allowed Starr to avoid prison so she could care for Spottedcrow's children.
When Spottedcrow was booked, after her sentence was handed down, marijuana was found in the jacket she was wearing. She pleaded guilty to that additional charge and was sentenced to two years running concurrent with the previous sentence.
After her story was published in the Tulsa World, a groundswell of support grew. Supporters expressed concern with possible racial bias, unequal punishment among crimes, women in prison, effects on children of incarcerated parents and extreme sentences for drug offenses.
Oklahoma City attorney Josh Welch has been donating his services to fight what he calls an inequitable punishment.
In October, a Kingfisher County judge took four years off her sentence. The judge issued an order rather than allow her an appearance in court. Her attorney and supporters believe it was to avoid the crowd expected to be at the courthouse that day.
Welch said he plans to file for post-conviction relief, alleging the original attorney was ineffective and had a conflict in representing Spottedcrow and her mother. He plans to make the filing in early January and submit an early parole packet at the same time.
"We are grateful to get four years taken off her sentence but still believe the sentence is unjust and excessive," Welch said.
Days blur in prison
"The first eight months were a blur," Spottedcrow said. "I just cried a lot. It's like I woke up a couple of months ago."
Her daily schedule starts with breakfast at 5:30 a.m., followed by her job in the laundry. At 4:30 p.m., she is released and goes to the gym, followed by dinner and then church at 7 p.m.
"You have to try and keep your mind busy," she said. "It's easy to get sad, depressed and stuck in your own head in here."
Prison is no picnic, even at a minimum-security campus like Eddie Warrior, she said.
"I took for granted using the bathroom by myself, what clothes you can wear and being able to pick up and go to the store when you want," Spottedcrow said. "I hate not being able to use your own shampoo and you are limited to spending $10 a month (in the commissary)."
But it's her kids taking up most of her thoughts.
"I was there every day taking of care of them before this," she said. "I did everything from going to football games and PTA."
While in prison, Spottedcrow has taken parenting classes, finished her GED and participates in a grief/loss recovery program, a behavior course, Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous and a faith-based program. She is on a waiting list to begin higher education and Career Tech classes.
"The life I was living before, that's over," Spottedcrow said. "I'm not playing with my life anymore. I would never chance this again for my children."
Spottedcrow never denied she smoked pot but said she was never a drug dealer or ever used or sold marijuana in front of her children.
"I got myself in this situation, and I'm not saying I shouldn't be punished," she said. "But I think this is a little excessive, especially looking at other cases from my county. And I'm sleeping next to people who have killed people, and they have less time than me. There are days I really can't believe I'm in prison."
In prison, she has had three misconducts: one for bartering when she gave an inmate cigarettes, one for having contraband when cookies were found in her locker without a receipt and another for aiding and abetting when she did not tell authorities a woman put bleach in the laundry area.
"I have a big heart," she said. "When I see someone in need, like for food, I want to help if I can. But you can get a misconduct in here for the littlest things."
'We struggle every day'
In her classes, she has reflected on her life and changes that need to be made, including in her love life.
When she entered prison, she was still in a relationship with her common-law husband, who is the father of three of her children. Now, that relationship is essentially over, and he has not been supporting or caring for the children either, she said.
"The reality is - out of sight, out of mind," she said. "We were kids having kids. I'm taking it day by day right now. But when I get out of here, I'm only worrying about me and my kids. They are my first concern."
And there may be some concerns to work through with her children.
At the Kingfisher home, it's been a tough existence and one that is relying on the generosity and help of others.
Spottedcrow's oldest child has been acting out since her incarceration.
"He's in trouble for stealing, and his mouth is real swift and sharp," Starr said. "He blames me a lot for what happened to his mother. The girls want to cry a lot. They don't like to listen to me, saying, 'You're not my mother.' We struggle every day."
Financially, the situation has been devastating at times.
Starr earns $8 an hour at a truck stop and doesn't have a driver's license because of a conviction. Spottedcrow's oldest child pitches in with a few dollars from odd jobs he does at their church.
Starr's utility and food costs have shot up since she took in the four children, and she owes $8,000 in court fines. As part of her sentence, she must take two drug tests a year, costing $150 each.
"But there are other little things, like I couldn't buy their school pictures this year," Starr said. "At school, kids can buy popcorn for $1 on Fridays, and sometimes mine are the only ones not getting popcorn."
But there are helping hands.
When her washing machine broke down, the school principal's church purchased a new machine. She has a son and daughter who come over to help. People have been generous in sending needed clothes and donating food.
Starr's health, however, has been in decline, with high blood pressure and a gall bladder surgery she has been putting off.
"We go to church every week and pray," Starr said. "I wouldn't have made it this far without the Lord."
The oldest child is seeing a counselor, but the other three are not.
Starr admits she used to "party," which included smoking marijuana. But she has been sober since becoming a full-time caregiver for her grandchildren.
"All that partying came to a halt," she said. "I look at my grandkids every day and know marijuana is what took away their mother. I don't want no more of that."
Ready for a reunion
At Eddie Warrior, Spottedcrow spends a lot of time writing letters to her family and thinking about reuniting with them. She makes sure to send money she's earned from the laundry job to her children on their birthdays.
"There are women in here who don't know where their kids are," she said. "I don't have to worry about that. I wouldn't trust my kids with anyone else but my mother. There are days in here I really miss my kids, but I can't say I worry about my kids."
Her son has visited three times; the girls have been once. Because of the separation anxiety after the visit, no more visits are planned. Also, it takes about four hours to get to the prison, and the family has no car.
"I talk to my baby and mom every day, sometimes two or three times just to get through the day," Spottedcrow said.
"Prison changes you - it has to. It has definitely opened my eyes to things I was doing wrong. You see everything differently. You have a lot of time to think. You see and think about the negative stuff you were doing and the negative people around you and the stupid things you were doing."
Spottedcrow would like to start her own business and is preparing for the difficulty in finding a job as a felon.
First, she enjoys thinking of her release.
"I'm ready for it, and I won't look back," she said. "When I get to my kids, we're going to be closed up in the house together for a while. I have a lot of making up to do."
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
firstname.lastname@example.org SUBHEAD: Mother of 4 evaluates one year behind bars no holiday at christmas: it's 'any other day'
Original Print Headline: Reflection in prison