Strung Out, Locked Up

by James A. Pearson

08/05/2014

In 2010, Tamra Schmidkunz sat in a dark car outside the Rib Crib on 51st Street and Sheridan Avenue in Tulsa. She was in the car with three of her boyfriend’s friends. One of them had a gun. They had already circled the restaurant a couple of times. Tamra had worked there for a while so she knew where the money would be and that there weren’t any cameras.

A police cruiser drove by, and then another.

A nervous leg made the orange light from a streetlamp quiver a little in Tamra’s dark hair. Shadows deepened in her cheeks and around her eyes. She was addicted to meth and shoplifting, but she had never committed robbery or any other violent crime.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” today’s Tamra told me on a recent afternoon, sitting in a cute little coffee shop in the middle of cute little Main Street Claremore. Her skin is latte colored, the sort of complexion that could pass for Latino or light African American, which she actually is, the daughter of a white mother and a black father. She shook her head. “I’m just glad I didn’t go through with it.”

A couple of years after the aborted robbery, Tamra went to prison anyway. Not for a violent offense, but for shoplifting. It was the day before Fourth of July, and she had promised her oldest daughter fireworks. She drove with friends down to Muskogee, someplace where no one knew her, to steal something she could sell for fireworks money. Tamra was caught with $77 worth of Walmart merchandise, prosecuted, and imprisoned.

Most shoplifting charges don’t lead to prison, but Tamra had been caught before, twice, and she gave the police her sister’s name to try to stay free. When it didn’t work, she became part of an astounding statistic: Oklahoma incarcerates a higher percentage of its women than any other state—double the national average—and a higher percentage than any country on Earth.

***

In the three years between Rib Crib and prison, Tamra descended into, as she put it, “a lot of demeaning and degrading things.” The climax of Tamra’s criminal story came on October 4, 2012. She had been in jail since early July, and that morning she was placed in a cold cell next to the Tulsa courthouse. She had pleaded for something besides prison—drug court or Women in Recovery, a program of Tulsa’s Family and Children Services for women addicted to drugs and alcohol. But her request for drug court was denied, and Women in Recovery rejected her application. One of her references said she might run away.

First she appeared in court to try to keep some custody of her four-month-old daughter. Tamra had conceived her daughter during a paid sexual encounter with a man nearly 30 years her elder who had entered the U.S. illegally. She feared that if he got full custody she might never see her daughter again. Tamra was escorted into the courtroom in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit. The father was awarded full custody, and Tamra was taken back to the cell.

Later that day she was escorted into another courtroom, where she plead guilty to the charges against her and had to “sign for her time,” officially accepting a two-year prison sentence. It was a day of reckoning she remembers as sad and terrifying.

But her lowest moment came several months before, when she was arrested in Muskogee. That day she used her one phone call to call her mom and talk to her oldest daughter, who was six at the time. “My daughter just screamed at me,” said Tamra. “She was so mad.” Tamra stayed in the local jail for five weeks without another chance to talk to her family before being transferred to Tulsa.

***

Oklahoma’s overall incarceration rate, for men and women, is third highest among U.S. states. And America’s incarceration rate is the highest of any country in the world.¹

It’s not only our ranking that gives pause. It’s the scale of the difference between us and other countries. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, America incarcerates 707 people for every 100,000 residents (or one out of every 99 adults). Compare that to some famously strict countries like Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, which incarcerate 233 and 238 people per 100,000, respectively—a third America’s rate.

Now consider other countries that share our level of development. Out of 100,000 residents, the UK incarcerates 148, Germany only 78, and Japan a scant 51. On average, America locks up 10 times more of its people than other developed countries.

***

After signing for her time, Tamra spent four months in county jail waiting for a spot to open up in the overcrowded state prisons. “I felt like I served my whole sentence before they even transferred me,” she said.

Finally she was taken to Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City, a low-security prison were some inmates qualify for work release. She told me about the assessment and reception process she was put through upon arriving at Kate Barnard, a process that seems burned into her memory. “When you first get there you have to strip naked in front of a guard and bend over and spread”—Tamra laughed in embarrassment—“your cheeks and cough.”

She called this the “squat and cough,” and it was far from the last time she’d have to do it. She doesn’t blame the prison for the procedure. “I understand why they’re doing it,” she told me. “It’s just so degrading and demeaning.”

Then she was locked in a holding cell, waiting for a regular one to open up. “You’re in a cell for 23 hours of the day, sometimes all day,” she said. “It’s you and one other person in a little closet-space cell. I was in there for almost a month. And sometimes people were in there for two months or three months because it’s so full.”

Once she got into her cell, she started the usual monotony of prison life. Morning bunk inspections, full-time work for which she earned $17 per month,² prisoner counts during which all the prisoners had to stand outside until guards got the right number, sometimes for hours in the cold. Then there was the lack of privacy, even from male guards, some of whom threw things at inmates and called them “bitches.”

Tamra also found her cellmate doing meth. “The drugs inside that prison are almost worse than on the street,” she told me. Prisoners on work release would smuggle the drugs in, which fueled a bustling trade. Later in her term, a prison acquaintance died after smoking K2, a synthetic form of marijuana. As a recovering meth addict, the temptation was nearly unbearable.

***

The war on drugs is the greatest driver of America and Oklahoma’s bloated incarceration rates. Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled, with most of the growth consisting of nonviolent drug offenses. Over 52 percent of the women locked up in Oklahoma in 2013 were convicted of non-violent drug crimes. According to ReMerge, a program in Oklahoma County to keep mothers out of prison, 61 percent of incarcerated women in Oklahoma have a moderate to high need for substance
abuse treatment.

Melissa French, assistant public defender in Oklahoma County, told me that Oklahoma’s justice system is particularly punitive toward drug crimes. It starts with the laws themselves. For instance, Oklahoma’s laws allow trafficking charges — which come with mandatory prison time — to be brought against anyone caught with a certain amount of a drug, even if there’s no evidence of transporting or selling it. And for some drugs that amount is head-scratchingly low. For crack cocaine, the trafficking threshold is only five grams, while for uncut cocaine it’s more than five times as high.

And you can be charged with felony possession for something as small as having a baggy with only a residue of pot or some other drug in it. In fact, you don’t even have to be in possession of the baggy. If you’re in the same car as that baggy you can catch the charge. If five of you are in the car, all five of you can be charged and convicted.

Much of this seems due to Oklahoma’s so-called “tough on crime” culture. But when you stack a few tough-on-crime laws together, you can end up with absurd outcomes. Consider the three-strikes law, where a third felony conviction calls for much harsher sentencing. If you had two non-drug felonies on your record and then were caught in that car with the baggy and charged with possession, you could end up sentenced to life in prison.

French told me that her boss, Chief Public Defender Bob Ravitz, is fond of saying that no one should go to prison for more than 10 years for a drug offense. But by Oklahoma law, you can do life for residue in a baggy.

On top of the laws, there is a huge amount of discretion for district attorneys and judges. The tough-on-crime culture comes into play again here. Officials campaign on tough-on-crime platforms and are judged by their tough-on-crime records. More and tougher convictions are what the culture wants. So when they have a choice between two charges or two prison terms, they push for the tougher ones.

All of this adds up to many women (and men) in prison who would not have gone to prison in other states.

***

Thanks to her record and her publicly available mugshots, it’s easy to picture Tamra as a criminal. It takes a little more digging to see who she was before she was a criminal.

Tamra was born in Houston, Texas. Her mom worked at a convenience store and got into a relationship with her boss, a black man. He was married, and after they had their second daughter together she realized he wasn’t going to leave his wife. Finally she took the girls and moved to Baton Rouge.

They settled in a predominantly white community in a part of the state where racial tensions still sounded deeply in the culture. Soon she met a man, a white man, and moved her family in with him.

“This guy, he was kind of racist,” Tamra said, her voice rising like it was a question. “He wasn’t physically abusive, but he was really mentally abusive. What I really remember is just being unwanted by him.” At school, too, she felt ostracized. The school was mostly white, and young Tamra didn’t feel like she fit in. With no connection to her father, her black half, she didn’t understand her racial identity and had no one to show her how to navigate the tensions of being black in white America. She remembers regularly feeling frustrated and depressed, even as a child. Sometimes her frustrations would boil over and she’d lash out at her younger sister, something that still seems to mystify her and cause her some guilt.

Tamra lived in Baton Rouge for eight years before her mother split with her boyfriend and moved with the girls to Tulsa. From ages four to twelve, Tamra said, she felt different and unwanted in her school, her community, and even in her home.

In Tulsa, though, things looked up. The family settled in North Tulsa and Tamra started sixth grade there. The students at her school were mostly African American. “I don’t know why, but I felt like I started fitting in there,” she said. “I did really well in school. My friends and I would compete to see who could get the best grades.” She also competed in spelling bees and an academic decathlon.

Then, after Tamra finished seventh grade, her mom moved the family to East Tulsa, to a predominately Latino community. “I went back to feeling like I was out of place. I didn’t fit in there. I absolutely hated it.”

The wounds of childhood are the deepest, and Tamra’s were being reopened. But now she wasn’t a powerless child. She was a teenager, and she rebelled. She started skipping school. Her mom, a single mother working the graveyard shift, couldn’t ensure that she went to class. “There was nothing she could have done anyway,” Tamra said.

When she was 14, Tamra started tracking down her dad, who lived in Chicago. One day her mom, who was working at Home Depot, brought Tamra and her sister with her. Tamra dialed information from the phone behind the counter. “I asked them if they knew the number for my dad’s name, and they gave it to me and I called it,” she narrated. “I asked him if he knew a Wendy Schmidkunz, and he dropped the phone and said, ‘Oh my gosh, she has my kids!’ That’s the first encounter I ever had with my dad since I was four years old.”

Tamra’s mom, tired from years of single parenthood and overwhelmed with a newly rebellious teenager, sent Tamra and her sister to live with their father awhile.

For her sister, still a pre-teen and committed to school and church, this was a great move. Her dad took to her right away. But for Tamra it just compounded the disaster. She was taken away from everything she knew. Her father was strict and tried to crack down on her rebellion. He seemed disgusted by her behavior. Tamra lasted only a month in Chicago before she was on a plane back to Tulsa.

And then she began her long spiral toward prison. The first boyfriend, the first drugs, the first baby. The second boyfriend, the harder drugs, the second baby. The third boyfriend, the meth, the third and fourth babies. The last baby conceived in an act of prostitution.

***

Society turns to prison for three purposes: protection from dangerous people, punishment for crime, and rehabilitation of criminals.

Prison is very good at protecting us from dangerous criminals. The thickly barred cells, the razor wire, the big-shouldered guards — as long as criminals are locked inside, it’s going to be very hard for them to hurt us outside. Prison is also good at punishment. Months or years in a harsh place without freedom and family is punishment to almost anyone. Tamra certainly felt punished.

When it comes to rehabilitation, though, prison falls short. A national study by the Pew Center in 2011 showed that 43 percent of people released from prison in the U.S. were incarcerated again within only three years.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections admits as much. Their 2013 report on female offenders, led by Dr. Laura Pitman, says, “Many [female prisoners] return to Oklahoma communities requiring the same services they needed when they arrived at the Assessment and Reception Center.” They are still addicted, still untreated for mental health issues, still poor, and, now with felony records, even harder to employ.³

Or, as Women in Recovery Director Mimi Tarrasch put it, “You don’t get better in prison.” Prisons are not designed or funded to address

the issues that bring women to prison in the first place.

Tamra was not a violent criminal. Arguably, what she needed most was rehabilitation, a chance to overcome her circumstances and her mistakes, and to start building a respectable life. She needed what prison was least equipped to give her.

***

Near the beginning of her incarceration, Tamra attended a class called Women in Transition, which aims to prepare inmates for being released and restarting their lives outside. The class, funded by Stand in the Gap Ministries, was taught by a woman named Rhonda Bear, who had been through incarceration herself.

Rhonda’s criminal story climaxed with her shivering through a cold night outdoors, hiding from authorities. She was addicted to meth, wanted in six counties, and had lost custody of her children. Finally, in hopes of one day getting her children back, she turned herself in.

Now, more than a decade out of prison, she teaches in-prison classes and runs several transitional homes and a nonprofit coffee shop that works as a job-training facility — the cute little coffee shop in Claremore where I first met Tamra.

Tamra is currently living in one of Rhonda’s transitional homes in Claremore, which she shares with six other women. She is on the verge of completing both her GED and a 12-step program. Her kids stay with her on weekends, except for the daughter she lost custody of, whom she hasn’t seen since that day in court.

She worries about her kids now. She knows some of the statistics about kids whose mothers are incarcerated.4 She worries about them growing up without a dad, like she did.

And she wonders what her kids think of her. “When I tell my kids I love them, sometimes I’m like, ‘Do they believe me?’ because I’ve said it so many times before and I never showed them that I did.”

As soon as she finishes her GED, she’ll move into a single-family transitional home and have her kids with her full time. She works at a restaurant in town and is looking ahead to college, wondering what to study. She knows she wants to do something that helps people. In the meantime she pays about $500 per month in various fines, fees, and court costs.

Today’s Tamra looks like a prison success story. Going into prison she was addicted, by her own account, to both drugs and stealing. And coming out she is clean and pulling her life together in ways she never did before.

I asked her what gave her the strength to stay clean in prison. “That phone call I had to make to my daughter on the day I was arrested,” she said. “I was so tired of making those phone calls.”

Footnotes

1. The only possible exceptions are North Korea, where statistics are undocumented, and Seychelles, a tiny island paradise that sits about 1,000 miles off the Horn of Africa, whose per capita rate rivals the United States; however, Seychelles’ tiny population means there are actually fewer than 700 people incarcerated on the entire island, which makes a comparison difficult.

2. Phone calls were $4 for 10 minutes, and prisoners buy many of their own hygiene materials and toiletries.

3. A raft of research has identified several “pathways” that commonly lead women to incarceration. Among the most significant are a history of abuse and trauma, family dysfunction and instability, mental health issues, substance abuse and addiction, poverty, and race.

4. According to Dr. Susan Sharp, who has studied Oklahoma’s incarceration of women for more than a decade, children of incarcerated women are more likely to experience poverty, trauma, and home instability—the very things that predispose people toward criminality later in life.


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 15, July 15, 2014