Before bars 

Terri Woodland, ReMerge director, said the female prison population has exploded in recent years. Oklahoma is ranked first in the nation for female prisoners. Last year alone, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) reported Oklahoma locked up 127 women per 100,000 residents.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) reports 2,598 women were incarcerated as of Feb. 29, 2012. DOC also reports more than 40 percent of the women in its care are in for drug-related offenses.

The program works primarily with nonviolent offenders, and most of its clients have drug-related charges. The program is “designed to keep women with children out of prison,” Woodland said.

Nearly 1.3 million mothers are incarcerated in the nation. Also, twothirds of female prisoners have children under the age of 18, and between 5 and 10 percent of women in prison are pregnant, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

“We focus on rehabilitating the mother, keeping her in the community, to reduce the rate of intergenerational incarceration we see in Oklahoma,” Woodland said.

The program requires women to go through treatment to help with addictions, past abuse and trauma.

“We know that many of the women have abuse in their history. Many have a history of domestic violence, in addition to mental illness in the family,” Woodland said.

ReMerge also offers family counseling for the mothers and their children. The program contracts with NorthCare mental health services to provide therapy.

Life-changing The program is designed to keep women out of prison and make them self-sufficient, Woodland said.

ReMerge helps the women with rent, transportation to day care for their children and job placement and college admissions.

After the women complete the program, prosecutors can recommend for dismissal of all charges, giving the women a clean slate so they can move on with their lives.

“They have the opportunity to have the charges dismissed. It’s their choice. They can either go to jail or enter our program,” Woodland said.

Yvonne Estrada, a single mother of five, said her life before ReMerge was a struggle. She entered the gang life at an early age. At 16, Estrada started using drugs, and a year later, she gave birth to her first child.

“I couldn’t understand why my mother was around and my father was incarcerated my entire life and turn[ed] to another life,” Estrada said.

She married a man who introduced her to marijuana. According to Estrada, the minor drug use led to meth and other criminal behavior.

It’s their choice. They can either go to jail or enter our program.

—Terri Woodland

“I didn’t know how to live and didn’t have the support system I needed,” she said.

The law finally had enough with her lifestyle, and the judge gave her a choice to enter ReMerge or a 10-year prison stay.

“I thought about my little baby.

Where was she going to live? What was she going to?” Estrada said.

Estrada was the program’s first graduate. It changed her life, she said. She again has custody of her child and is now studying to be a counselor.

“I want to help others and give them the same chance I was given,” Estrada said.

Learning from others’ mistakes Carrie Slaughter, another ReMerge graduate, said she didn’t care about herself or anything else before entering the program.

“I had so many charges for so many things. I could have gone to prison for a very long time,” she said.

As the daughter of a lifetime addict, Slaughter said it was impossible not to follow in those footsteps. The judge gave her the same choice she offered Estrada — prison or the program.

Slaughter said the program was difficult, but it forced her to look at how her behavior affected others.

“There are other programs that don’t really care. But ReMerge made us follow the rules and explained to us when we did something wrong,” Slaughter said.

“I got in a lot of trouble. Had they turned their back on me, I don’t know where I would be.”

Slaughter is now studying for her counseling degree and wants to help others overcome drug addictions and avoid the mistakes she made.

ReMerge has had a 90 percent success rate, Woodland said.

Nine participants were removed for violations, but none of the graduates have reoffended, representing a zero recidivism rate. Woodland attributes the high success rate to the length of the program.

“We give them time to learn the new skills and get help starting before we graduate them,” she said.

The women’s attitudes to treatment also make the program a hit.

“They all really want to be successful,” Woodland said.

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