By Sarah Stillman via The New Yorker –
On a late-October morning two years ago, Robin Steinberg stood barefoot in her apartment, on the Upper West Side, preparing to uproot her life. Her suitcases were stacked by the door, her winter coats piled in the hallway. Steinberg, a fifty-nine-year-old native New Yorker, had decided to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to launch a legal startup. She laced up her sneakers and said goodbye to the bedrooms of her grown children, which she called “the shrines.” As she dragged her bags to her car, she told her doorman that she was going to cry. “I’m not good with change,” she said. He told her not to worry, and blew her a farewell kiss.
When Steinberg decided to move to Tulsa, she wasn’t sure whether it was in the Midwest, or the Southwest, or somewhere else altogether—“the buckle of the Bible Belt,” she called it to friends. After an initial scouting trip, she told me, “I saw a woman in yoga pants with a gun strapped to her leg—it’s an open-carry state!” Steinberg had spent most of her career working in the South Bronx. In 1997, along with seven others, including her husband, David Feige, she co-founded the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit that provides legal services to indigent clients. Rather than representing a client in an isolated case, the organization addresses the underlying reasons that the person ended up in the criminal-justice system. Lawyers might meet a client through a drug-possession case, then help him fight an eviction, get public benefits, or fill out his kids’ school-enrollment paperwork. “We’ll go anyplace a person needs us to go,” Steinberg, who served as the organization’s executive director, said. “Housing court, family court, immigration court.” This model became known as “holistic defense,” and, by 2016, the Bronx Defenders had expanded to a staff of three hundred, and was handling thirty thousand cases a year. The organization’s progress has mirrored changes in the nation as a whole. Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, as the war on drugs took off, incarceration rates in the U.S. grew explosively. Only in the past eight years have rates finally begun to fall for most demographic groups, with one alarming exception: women and girls.
America imprisons women in astonishing numbers. The population of women in state prisons has increased by more than eight hundred per cent in the past four decades. The number of women in local jails is fourteen times higher than it was in the nineteen-seventies; most of these women haven’t been convicted of a crime but are too poor to post bail while awaiting trial. The majority have been charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession, shoplifting, and parole violations. The result is that more than a quarter of a million children in the U.S. have a mother in jail. One in nine black children has a parent who is, or has been, incarcerated.
Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of people protested America’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border. Laura Bush denounced the practice as “cruel,” and Senator Jeff Flake called it “un-American.” In May, Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Secretary, defended the separations by noting how often the same thing happens to families in the criminal-justice system. “In the United States, we call that law enforcement,” she said.
For the children of incarcerated parents, the toll can be profound. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has shown that these children have an increased risk of mental-health conditions, including anxiety and depression. In adulthood, they have higher rates of asthma, migraines, high cholesterol, and H.I.V./AIDS, and are more likely to use illicit or prescription drugs. The economic effects are equally devastating. Adolescent boys with an incarcerated mother are twenty-five per cent more likely to drop out of school, and have a higher chance of ending up incarcerated themselves. The former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in remarks at the White House in 2016, summed up the situation: “Put simply, we know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far-reaching effect on her children, her community, and her entire family network.”
Nowhere is this problem starker than in Oklahoma, which has the highest rate of women’s incarceration in the nation. Eighty-five per cent of these women are mothers. Oklahomans have begun to acknowledge the negative repercussions of the situation, and the need for criminal-justice reform has become a rare point of bipartisan agreement in the state. In 2016, the governor, Mary Fallin, a Republican, said, “We need to prevent the breakup of the family,” calling the incarceration rate a “generational curse.” The former Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House, Kris Steele, has said that “to continue to throw more money on a broken system is not conservative, and not responsible.” George Kaiser, a Tulsa oil-and-gas billionaire, has made incarceration a central issue in his philanthropy. Since 2006, the George Kaiser Family Foundation has been trying to end generational cycles of poverty in Tulsa. At first, the foundation focussed on early-childhood education, pouring more than a billion dollars into various projects. But it soon became clear that outcomes for children wouldn’t change unless the foundation also addressed the incarceration of their mothers. In 2015, the foundation’s program officer, Amy Santee, called Steinberg. “I realize this is going to sound crazy to you, and you’re probably going to say no,” Santee said. “But what if the Bronx Defenders came here, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to represent women with children?”
Steinberg promised to consider the idea. Within a few months, she’d recruited five Bronx Defenders staffers to relocate to Tulsa with her. She was calling the project Still She Rises. “I’m not an incrementalist,” Steinberg told me on the day of her move. “Startups are my favorite thing.”
On November 9, 2016, Steinberg convened the first full-day meeting of Still She Rises. It was the morning of the Presidential election, and there was a feeling of excitement among the staff. The group had leased an office in North Tulsa, where it planned to concentrate its work. The office—a former video-rental store in a strip mall, wedged between an abandoned payday loan shop and a cat-spaying clinic—was still undergoing renovations, so the meeting took place in a co-working space in the city’s arts district, near a café serving vegan sandwiches and cashew-cheese tacos. “It could be Brooklyn,” Steinberg marvelled. “It’s full of wool hats and beards!” The staffers sat around a glass table covered in candy-corn cookies. Someone had scrawled the group’s central question on a blue Post-it and stuck it to the wall: “Why does Oklahoma incarcerate so many women?”
Oklahoma, Steinberg said, has few safety nets: very little cash assistance, few childcare subsidies, abysmal health-care options for poor families. The state rejected key provisions of Obamacare in 2012, and it has one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the country, with African-American children twice as likely to die in the first year of life as white children are.
The group taped huge sheets of butcher paper to the walls and shifted to questions of logistics. Who would replenish the toilet paper? Who would curate the feminist reading materials for the lobby? “We need pillows in a color that pops,” Steinberg said, after surveying the furniture plans. Asher Levinthal, a blond thirty-year-old family defense attorney with boxy green glasses, asked, “Do we have a changing table in the bathroom?” Another person floated the idea of free tampons. All agreed—and maybe diapers, too?
Over the years, the Bronx Defenders has won several high-profile settlements in civil-rights lawsuits, including one accusing the New York Police Department of racial discrimination for its stop-and-frisk policy, and another challenging the notoriously long delays in trials for misdemeanor offenses. In Tulsa, Steinberg hoped to pursue a similar strategy. Now she moved energetically around the room, explaining the local cash-bail system, which she suspected was unconstitutional. Posting bail in Tulsa County is often prohibitively expensive, and the pretrial detention rate is eighty-three per cent above the national average. “Collateral toll happens very quickly with women—they can lose their job and their kids,” Steinberg said. Children with incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than those with incarcerated fathers are; once they enter the foster system, the state can terminate parental rights in less than two years. In Oklahoma, this timeline is accelerated for kids under the age of four. As a result, mothers have an incentive to plead guilty, even to crimes that they didn’t commit, when they can’t afford bail. It’s often the fastest way to get released.
“But there is a court rule that says if you’re a private lawyer you can post a single dollar to get your client out of jail,” Steinberg said. “We’ll free fifty women before they even figure out what we’ve done!”
“Shut the fuck up!” one attorney said.
“You can’t breathe, right?” Steinberg asked.
“Oh, I’m gonna bail out so many moms—it’s happening on an industrial scale!” Matt Carroll, the youngest of the attorneys, said.
By dusk, the tables were covered with empty Diet Cokes and half-eaten cookies, and the butcher paper was filled with ideas on everything from community-outreach strategies—“Food banks? Block parties?”—to trash-disposal systems. The polls were closing soon. Still She Rises broke for the night.
“Bring Tulsa friends to my place,” Steinberg called out. “We’ll watch as Hillary Clinton becomes the next President!”
Steinberg’s husband, David Feige, had ordered brisket, biscuits, and baked beans for the Election Night party. Around eight, as early returns came in, Steinberg teased him: “Are you enjoying your last few minutes of patriarchy?” At around nine, Feige mentally rehearsed a toast to inaugurate Still She Rises. But the good cheer was rapidly draining out of the room. By ten, CNN had declared a long list of states for Trump. The guests, watching results come in on their phones, were vibrating with panic. Donald Trump was going to be the President. Steinberg’s twenty-one-year-old daughter texted to ask when they’d be moving to Canada. Members of Steinberg’s staff sat in her living room, looking stunned.
Eventually, Steinberg gave a speech. They would not be moving to Canada, she said. In fact, they had come to the right place at the right time. Oklahoma was one of the reddest states in the nation. “We’re right in the heart of it,” she said.
A week before Trump’s Inauguration, Still She Rises held its grand opening. The attorneys posted signs around the city: “Are you pregnant, a mother, or a female caregiver? Let us help you.” Word spread quickly. One woman came to the office at the urging of her mailman, who knew that she’d been struggling for nearly a decade to pay off old court fines. Another came because she’d heard friends talking enthusiastically about Still She Rises and had mistaken it for a night club; she left with an attorney to represent her in a domestic dispute. Some women came after seeing a clip on the local news in which a Tastee-Freez cashier talked about how Still She Rises had helped her pay off overdue court fees and fines.
During one of Steinberg’s first evenings at the office, a local official called to say that a woman named Kieonee Brown was being interrogated by detectives without a lawyer present. Steinberg met Brown at the jail later that night. Brown, through tears, told her that she’d hardly eaten or slept in the days since she’d been arrested. Her grandmother had offered to sell her house to raise money for Brown’s bail, but in Tulsa posting bail came with a catch: Brown would no longer be eligible for a public defender, and she couldn’t afford a lawyer.
Steinberg began to piece together Brown’s case. On January 16, 2017, at 1:30 A.M., Brown, an aspiring nurse’s assistant, left her apartment, in North Tulsa, with her boyfriend. They drove to his mother’s house, which was several blocks away. Figuring that she’d be gone for only a few minutes, Brown left her five-year-old daughter, Iionni, asleep in bed. Brown stayed in the car while her boyfriend went into the house. Then she heard shots and ran inside, to find that her boyfriend, his mother, and his mother’s partner had been killed. Brown asked a neighbor to call the police. She was traumatized and in shock. She’d just lost her boyfriend, and she was worried about Iionni. She said that she begged the cops, “I have to go get my baby.”
Detectives took Brown to an interrogation room, where they questioned her about the triple homicide. Later, they told her that she was facing charges for leaving Iionni at the apartment. In an arrest report, officers wrote that Brown had lied, claiming that relatives were at home with the child. Brown, they added, lived in a “high crime rate area” and lacked “a telephone inside the apartment that the five-year-old could have accessed in case of an emergency.” She also had outstanding misdemeanor warrants, for traffic tickets that she hadn’t paid, and had used drugs on the evening of her arrest. She was transferred to jail and charged with child neglect. If convicted, she was facing up to life in prison.
Steinberg had seen many similar child-welfare cases in New York, where they were funnelled through family court, which determines domestic issues such as custody. But she’d hardly ever seen a mother criminally prosecuted in a case like Brown’s, and was shocked by the harshness of the potential sentence. The Tulsa County District Attorney, Steve Kunzweiler, told me that he couldn’t comment on an ongoing case, but said, “With child neglect, a parent is putting a child at risk of harm, and I have to be the voice of that child.” He added, “We work really hard to recognize the backstories of people’s lives, but, in the end, we still have the obligation to protect vulnerable people, especially children.”
In Steinberg’s view, Brown was being punished, in part, for being poor. Officers had noted that Brown’s rent was overdue; according to her landlord, she was on the brink of eviction. The landlord had also produced photographs of Brown’s kitchen, showing a blackened banana on the counter and slices of old pizza in a cardboard box, which the police took as evidence that Brown had failed to provide her child with “edible food.” The local news ran her mug shot.
Steinberg passed the case on to two Still She Rises attorneys—Asher Levinthal, an expert in child-welfare law, and Ruth Hamilton, a criminal-defense lawyer. The pair soon discovered that, about a year earlier, Brown had been attacked by a stranger named Shawn Freeman, who had offered her a ride home from a McDonald’s and then raped her. Brown had helped the police apprehend Freeman, who turned out to be a serial rapist. He had been giving women rides, assaulting them, and then claiming that he was a police officer in order to dissuade them from reporting the crime. Brown had volunteered to serve as a key witness for the Tulsa District Attorney’s office in Freeman’s trial. The stress, she told me, had revived a drug addiction that she’d been battling since she was a teen-ager.
Severe trauma is a major contributing factor in female incarceration. So is addiction. Eighty-six per cent of jailed women have experienced sexual violence, and the majority have problems with substance abuse. There’s often a feedback loop between the two: drugs can serve as an escape from trauma, and addiction can make a woman more vulnerable to further abuse. Brown, who was molested as a child, started using crack cocaine because, she said, “it was a getaway for me.”
To avoid a trial in the child-neglect case, Brown could enroll in Women in Recovery, another program funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which offers an alternative to incarceration for women with addictions. If the district attorney agreed, Brown would receive almost a year and a half of drug rehab, therapy, and job training, which would cost about twenty thousand dollars, comparable to the cost of a year of incarceration. Graduates had a recidivism rate of less than five per cent. But the program also came with risks. To participate, Brown had to accept a “blind plea,” a formal admission of guilt. If she relapsed, she could be sent directly to prison.
Brown decided to take the risk. She was desperate not to lose her parental rights. “My baby respects me as a mother,” Brown said. “I’m proud that she’s on the right track at school.” She talked about her daughter’s taste for healthy food—“She’s the only kid who loves salad”—and about their shared appreciation for “Doc McStuffins,” an animated television show about a black girl who serves as a doctor to her stuffed animals.
After the arrest, Brown had tried to comfort Iionni about her absence, saying that she was on a vacation. “Don’t cry,” she’d said. “You’ve got to be Mommy’s strong girl.” Before Brown’s first day at Women in Recovery, Iionni repeated the words. “Don’t cry, Mom,” she said. “You’ve got to be a strong girl, like me.”
Steinberg grew up in Peter Cooper Village, on the east side of Manhattan. Her mother, she says, was “the Catholic daughter of a coal miner and a cafeteria worker” in small-town Pennsylvania; she had met Steinberg’s father at a stoplight—he leaped out of a convertible to ask for her number—and got pregnant at nineteen. Steinberg’s father struggled with addictions to cocaine, Quaaludes, and heroin. More than once, he spent the family’s savings on benders. He died of a drug overdose at the age of forty-nine. “In the language of our times, I think he’d be called bipolar,” Steinberg told me. “Sometimes he’d just disappear for days.”
When she was a girl, her grandfather took her on field trips to the local courthouse to watch cases unfold. She exhibited an early antiauthoritarian streak. At a summer camp, she got in trouble for refusing to salute the flag. As a teen-ager, she idolized “feminist giants” like Gloria Steinem. She kept a blue denim scrapbook filled with photographs of anti-Vietnam War marches and pro-choice rallies, and news clippings about the Kent State shootings and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. While in law school, at New York University, she spent a summer going undercover at Ku Klux Klan rallies, conducting research for the Southern Poverty Law Center. She also worked for a law clinic that provided services to incarcerated mothers at a prison in upstate New York. At the Bronx Defenders, ninety-five per cent of Steinberg’s clients were men; in many ways, she considered Still She Rises a return to her feminist roots.
In Tulsa, she began testing new ideas for “front-end” representation—interventions that start well before a defendant shows up in a courtroom. One early experiment involved house calls. Most days, Ruth Hamilton would go online at 8 A.M. and scan the bookings from the county jail, looking for mothers who had posted bail. Then she would drive to the women’s homes, knock on their doors, and offer to represent them.
One spring morning, I joined Hamilton as she steered her car through a downpour toward the house of Angelica Hearn. Two days earlier, Hamilton had helped Hearn, a mother of four, arrange bail. Hearn had got into a fight with another woman at a gas station; police officers claimed that she’d reached beneath her dress and pulled out a gun. Hearn denied this, and, when we reached her house, she showed us the elephant-print dress that she’d been wearing that night, to prove how little room it left to hide a gun. “Let me put it on, so you can see it,” Hearn said. “This dress has slits all the way up the side!”
Three years earlier, Hearn had been arrested for outstanding traffic warrants. She’d spent a week in jail before officials realized that they had the wrong woman. With help from a local attorney, Hearn had filed a civil suit, but the case had stalled. Her booking photograph still shows up on mugshots.com, next to the phrase “Wrong Defendant Arrested.” Before encountering Still She Rises, Hearn had considered skipping a court date—she had neither a car nor a babysitter, and she was afraid that the state would seize her kids. Hamilton said, “If you ever have trouble getting to court, just let me know and I’ll take you.”
Hearn told us that she’d been living in a bigger house down the road that had become uninhabitable. Now she and her former landlord were locked in a dispute about rent.
“Well, who lives there now?” Hamilton asked.
“Rats,” Hearn said. “They ran me clean up out of there. I said, ‘Oh, hell no! Y’all can have this motherfucker!’ ”
To fend off eviction, Hearn had been giving food stamps to her current landlord. “It’s a sacrifice I have to make for my kids,” Hearn said. “I don’t want them to be homeless.” Nationwide, formerly incarcerated people are ten times more likely to be homeless than people who have never been to jail are. The rate is even higher if they are also women of color. In Oklahoma, the law bars people with felony drug convictions from public housing for at least three years, and landlords sometimes charge “felon deposits,” extra fees tacked onto the security deposit. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, Tulsa has one of the highest eviction rates in the country. Hearn received seven hundred and thirty-three dollars a month in Social Security. But, she said, “the bondsman takes five hundred dollars, the rent is six hundred dollars. That’s already over budget.”
As Hearn chopped an onion for her daughter’s tuna sandwich, she and Hamilton talked about her psychiatric diagnoses, which ranged from post-traumatic stress disorder (stemming from early-childhood abuse) to bipolar disorder (which was treatable, but Hearn had trouble finding consistent medical care). Hamilton said that Still She Rises would assign Hearn a client advocate to assist with housing, and a social worker to connect her with mental-health-care providers.
At one point, Hearn looked at Hamilton and shook her head. “You were heaven-sent, I swear,” she said. “Your name is Ruth? You were sent from God.”
Later, as we walked back to the car, Hamilton said, “She needs a lot. Psychiatric support, help with her rent, an update on her civil suit.” Hearn was unlikely to get much support in prison. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of incarcerated women report having been diagnosed with a mental-health condition. About eighty-three per cent of inmates with a mental illness don’t have access to the treatment they need.
The charges from the gas-station incident were eventually dropped, but Hearn was sentenced to three years in prison for violating her probation. She was sent to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, where more than ninety per cent of the women have mental-health issues. Her kids were placed in the custody of relatives.
On many weeknights, the staff of Still She Rises gathered after work for a happy hour. Over local craft beers with names like Dead Armadillo, they told stories from court, or jail, or house visits. The conversations often veered toward what you might call “weird shit noticed by New Yorkers living in Oklahoma.”A major theme was customer service. “If you buy a couch at Lowe’s, the guy will drive it to your house on his own dime,” Levinthal said one night. “Just to be nice!”
Another frequent topic was what Steinberg called “the Oklahoma bomb.” After Steinberg and Feige moved into their Craftsman bungalow, for instance, he had a friendly chat with a neighbor, who gushed about the architecture of the house. Then the woman added, of a small structure in the back yard, “I’ve always loved the slave quarters!”
Half the Still She Rises team was living in a former elementary school that had been turned into an apartment complex. Classrooms had been converted into bedrooms, but silver lockers still lined the halls. Life there seemed a bit like “Saved By the Bell” meets “Friends,” a vibe that grew more pronounced anytime the summer interns, a group of eager twentysomethings, came over for a barbecue. The interns had made a Google Doc called “Fun-Genda,” filled with Tulsa goals, including “trip to swimming hole,” “rock climbing,” and “biking up Cry Baby Hill.” One intern created the hashtag #Oklahomo to celebrate the gayest ways to spend a Tulsa summer. (The list topper: “Going to a drive-in movie in a small crappy car, lusting after local pickup trucks.”)
One morning, the staff gathered for a tour of the Greenwood Cultural Center, a site memorializing the losses that the city’s black community suffered nearly a century earlier, in one of the deadliest race massacres in the nation’s history. “This right here was Black Wall Street,” the guide, Alicia Latimer, told the group. During an oil boom in the early nineteen-hundreds, entrepreneurs in the segregated neighborhood of Greenwood had transformed the area into the country’s wealthiest African-American enclave. Then, on June 1, 1921, white mobs torched thirty-five blocks of Greenwood, provoked by unsubstantiated claims that a black shoe-shine worker had attacked a white woman. “One thousand two hundred and fifty-six homes were burned to the ground,” Latimer said. Beauty parlors, flower shops, and banks were reduced to ashes. A hotel built by a former slave was incinerated. The attack left as many as three hundred people dead and ten thousand homeless.
For decades, Oklahoma’s leaders largely denied the destruction, and the effects are still evident in the city’s racial disparities. Many clients of Still She Rises live on less than ten thousand dollars a year. According to the Tulsa Health Department, there is a twelve-year gap in life expectancy between residents of the richest and the poorest Tulsa Zip Codes.
At one point, Steinberg asked Latimer, “Do you have one piece of advice for us?”
Latimer replied, “Please, don’t be judgmental. Everybody has a story.”
One afternoon, Hamilton and I drove to the Tulsa jail, where a sheriff’s deputy led us down a narrow hallway to a two-tiered panopticon that overlooked the cells. We were there to meet Melodie Conn, a petite redhead with a fading spray tan.
“You look nothing like your mug shot!” Hamilton exclaimed warmly to Conn after we sat down.
“The girls make cosmetics out of Kool-Aid and Jell-O,” a public-affairs officer told us approvingly. A sign on the wall read “Sharing combs not allowed.”
It wasn’t long before Conn burst into tears. “They put my face all over the news,” she told Hamilton. She’d seen footage of herself on Fox 23, kneeling in handcuffs on her front lawn as her six-year-old daughter tried to comfort her. It was her first time being arrested. She’d been charged with “harboring a fugitive”—her ex-boyfriend.
Conn told us that she had thrown out the ex-boyfriend after he tried to choke her to death. “Do you know how many times I called the cops and they didn’t come?” she asked. She and her best friend had a code; if she texted “Pineapple,” it meant that her friend should call 911. The ex-boyfriend, Conn said, was wanted on a gun charge, and he had been at her house when police came to arrest him. Conn—afraid that he would hurt her, she said—was the driver in an attempted escape. They got only a few yards, and the police arrested Conn in front of her daughter. The crying girl held her mother’s hands, in handcuffs, for the next half hour, as news crews arrived. When police saw the interior of Conn’s house—empty cupboards, an ill-tended guinea pig—they opened a child-neglect case. Child-welfare workers took the girl into custody at school the next week.
“People think it’s easy to get out,” Conn said, of domestic abuse. “But he knows where you work, and where your daughter goes to school.” Leaving an abuser is actually the most dangerous thing a woman can do; about seventy-five per cent of domestic-violence homicides occur when a woman ends or attempts to end a relationship. The average victim of domestic abuse tries to escape at least seven times before she succeeds.
Because of overcrowding, Conn was sleeping on one of the jail’s “boats,” a makeshift piece of furniture that resembled a plastic tub. “Will you let my mom know that I’m sleeping on a boat in the middle of nowhere, but that it’s not as bad as ‘Lockup: Raw’ yet?” Conn said, referring to the reality-television series about prison.
Hamilton promised that she’d relay the message. She knew the jail wasn’t safe. The county had recently reached a settlement with a seventeen-year-old girl who was raped at the facility by a male guard. Another inmate, a young woman with mental-health problems, had been handcuffed in a holding cell called “the tub room” and sexually assaulted by male prisoners.
As we drove back to the Still She Rises office, Hamilton told me that Oklahoma’s legal system often exacerbates women’s problems. “You can see a woman in a domestic-violence situation here, or a woman facing addiction, and all the D.A.s want to do is punish her,” she said. “I’m reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ so maybe I’m just in a dystopian mood.”
Hamilton saw Conn’s case as part of a trend of criminalizing survivors of domestic violence. Oklahoma routinely prosecutes women for “failure to protect” their children, even when the women are victims, too. After the boyfriend of a twenty-one-year-old Tulsa woman named Heidi Marie Benjamin killed her infant son, Benjamin was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for not preventing the abuse. “This is a situation of your making,” the judge told Benjamin. “You did nothing to protect yourself and him.” Sarah McAmis, the Tulsa Assistant District Attorney, told the local paper that she was “very pleased” with the outcome, even though she’d been pushing for a life sentence. Dozens of women in the state have been imprisoned on similar charges—sometimes receiving longer sentences than the men who inflicted the abuse. In one high-profile case, a woman named Tondalao Hall was charged with failing to protect her children after her abusive boyfriend fractured their infant daughter’s legs and ribs. The boyfriend reached a plea deal and received eight years of probation, with no further jail time. Hall was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
Shortly after our visit, Melodie Conn was bailed out of jail while awaiting trial, and one Saturday we met at the office of Still She Rises. She had been assigned to take a class for survivors of domestic violence, and she said that she’d been learning a lot. She’d taken an assessment test about her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. At the end, a counsellor had broken difficult news: “You have very good odds that he’s going to kill you.”
Conn told me, “No one ever says, ‘Hey, looks like that guy’s going to beat the shit out of me. Let’s go home tonight!’ ” She had seen domestic violence growing up, she said: “I know I have to take responsibility. It was harming my kid to see what was happening to me.” Conn had started what she called an “improvement movement.” The first step, she said, was “to read lots of books about loving myself.” The second was to research “self-treatment for domestic violence,” and to join online support groups.
Hamilton told Conn that the prosecutor had been inflexible about her charges, child neglect and harboring a fugitive. “The new offer is five years suspended,” Hamilton said. “You’d have two felonies on your record.” If Conn wanted to contest the charges, her daughter would have to testify in court. Conn couldn’t bear the idea; she decided to plead guilty.
“I really don’t think it’s a good deal,” Hamilton warned.
“Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches,” Conn said.
Steve Kunzweiler, the district attorney, likes to explain women’s imprisonment using a metaphor about spankings. I’d read articles about Kunzweiler before our meeting, at the Tulsa County Courthouse. I’d learned that before hearings he likes to listen to music, including Metallica (“Enter Sandman”) and Loverboy (“Turn Me Loose”). I’d learned that he keeps an accordion folder labelled “Why I do this” in his desk drawer, filled with the photographs of victims on whose behalf he’s won convictions.
When I met Kunzweiler, who is tall and fit, he was sipping an iced tea from Chick-fil-A. “My wife says I look at things through the lens of black and white,” he told me. “I say to her, ‘Well, that’s how it should be. Either you accept responsibility for your actions or you don’t.’ ”
In 1989, Kunzweiler landed his first job at a prosecutor’s office. Not long afterward, a local judge told him that the task of a prosecutor is not simply to enforce the rules but to “teach people the morals they either never learned or they somehow forgot.” Kunzweiler found this advice eye-opening. Later, he realized that his approach to criminal defendants resembled the way that he disciplined his daughters. Parenting, he said, has three speeds: “There are times when your kids need a lecture, times when they need a grounding, and times when they need a spanking.”
I asked how this applied to court.
Let’s take a mother struggling with addiction, he suggested. Her first time getting caught, perhaps she deserves a lecture. If she relapses, she’s due for a grounding—some jail time. But if she continues to get in trouble? “The consequences of any true disciplinary system must become dire,” Kunzweiler said. Some cases required skipping straight to the spanking.
“If you molest a child? Goodbye!” He smacked his hands together loudly, as if to resemble a spanking or a slamming cell door.
“If you murder someone? Goodbye!” He smacked his hands again.
Kunzweiler supported the work of Women in Recovery, and said that he was eager to find common ground with Still She Rises. But some of Steinberg’s choices frustrated him. “I recognize we need to help women, given the high Oklahoma rate of female incarceration,” he said. “But which women are they picking to represent? Some of their cases—I mean, sheesh!” He gave an example: “They are representing a gal who stabbed another woman! The woman who needs the help is the woman who got stabbed. She has kids. And, wow, wouldn’t that be a great success story, if they’d do something for that woman?”
Women’s rights, he said, had informed his perspective: “If women are equal, then they are equal in all ways, including the idea that there are women to whom you have to say, ‘Goodbye!’ ” Steinberg later characterized this ideology as “vengeful equity.” But she did agree with Kunzweiler on one thing: that the fees his office was charging people convicted of petty crimes were, as he put it, “obscene and immoral.” Kunzweiler told me that the fees had emerged out of necessity, after the legislature cut his budget. “I should not be a bill collector,” he said. “And yet I’m thrust into that role.”
After an hour or so, Kunzweiler said that he had to wrap up our conversation. He was on his way to the trial of a local white cop who had been accused of fatally shooting his daughter’s black boyfriend. Just a few weeks before, Kunzweiler said, he’d been dealing with the prosecution of Betty Jo Shelby, a Tulsa police officer who in 2016 shot and killed an unarmed black man named Terence Crutcher while he was standing next to his car. (Another cop, seeing Crutcher from a helicopter, had observed, “That looks like a bad dude.”) Kunzweiler’s office had brought charges of first-degree manslaughter against Shelby, but she’d been acquitted.
“For some crazy reason, we seem to be the epicenter of this stuff,” he said with a sigh.
“Why do you think that is?” I asked, as he stepped into the elevator.
Kunzweiler shrugged, and the doors slid closed: “Bad luck?”
Steinberg and her team have been compiling a list of costs levied by the Oklahoma court system. In truancy court, you have to pay a fine if your kid has skipped too many days of school. In family court, you have to pay for an interpreter if you’re not a fluent English speaker. Several Still She Rises clients had been caught stealing baby formula and diapers and had been sent to a court-mandated “anti-theft school” run out of a local motel. The instructor charged sixty-five dollars for the class. Participants had to complete a “Life Wheel Self-Evaluation” that asked them to rate their performance, on a scale “from 0 to 2,” in such categories as Spiritual (“Communication with deity”), Physical (“Proper weight”), and Sexual (“Quality not quantity”).
One day at the Still She Rises office, I met a fifty-six-year-old woman named Linda Meachum, who told me that she’d “gone to jail on some humbug tickets.”
“What were those?” I asked.
“Too many dogs.”
“Is that an actual type of ticket?” I asked.
Matt Carroll, one of the attorneys, showed me a copy of the ticket. On it, a cop had scrawled, “Too many dogs,” and fined Meachum three hundred dollars.
Meachum told me that she’d been trying to overcome an addiction to crack cocaine, and that she had P.T.S.D. as a result of domestic violence. For comfort, she had adopted stray dogs. The dogs—including Lady, Bruno, and Sweetie—reminded Meachum of her upbringing, on a farm in rural Mississippi. She cooked meals for them and let her grandkids, for whom she was a primary caregiver, paint their toenails green.
Meachum had years’ worth of unpaid court fees and fines, mostly tied to her addiction. She hadn’t complied with the terms of her probation on drug-possession charges, which required regular drug tests and monthly supervision payments to the D.A. “Being a black woman on the north side of Tulsa, the job market is just nonexistent,” she told me. “I went to college in 2012 for landscaping and botanical science. My daughter had a baby, and I was trying to get to school and I got a speeding ticket, going forty-three in a thirty-five zone. I didn’t go to jail, but they impounded the car, and then I didn’t have any transportation and couldn’t go to school.” She’d also taken out a student loan, which she couldn’t pay off.
She had recently grown desperate. She heard that a local church was having an Easter-egg hunt, and that some of the plastic eggs would contain change and dollar bills. “I scanned that field myself, searching for eggs, and I got twenty-five,” she said. “I hid in the closet to check if they had money inside, but none of mine did.”
Meachum didn’t want to go to rehab, but she knew that it was necessary. Most of Oklahoma’s addiction-treatment centers have waiting lists that stretch for months, if not years. Amy Santee, of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, told me that in Tulsa “there is virtually no access to substance-abuse and mental-health-care services.” Nationwide, there are far fewer prison-diversion programs for women than for men. In Wyoming, for example, first-time male offenders have the option of attending a six-month “boot camp” instead of going to prison. The program isn’t available to women, who, as the Prison Policy Initiative reports, “face years of incarceration for first-time offenses while their male peers return quickly to the community.”
When I saw Meachum two months after our first meeting, she was still in line for a slot in residential treatment. “They take the priority cases first—the pregnant women—before they take the has-beens like me,” she told me. “But I’m good with that. I don’t want to have to leave my grandbabies.” She and her grandchildren had established their own small household government. “I’m the mayor,” Meachum told me. “The oldest grandbaby is the assistant mayor.”
Finally, a spot opened up, and a client advocate from Still She Rises agreed to drive Meachum to the program, in Muskogee, an hour away. Knowing that someone else had to serve as house mayor while she was gone, Meachum held an election. “The ten-year-old stuffed the ballot box!” she told me. “She got fifty-five votes.” Meachum decided to accept the election results anyway. Her granddaughter became the mayor.
One afternoon, Regina Goodwin, an Oklahoma state representative and a vocal supporter of Still She Rises, took me to meet her uncle, Jim Goodwin, a civil-rights activist and an attorney. Jim owns The Oklahoma Eagle, a community newspaper that’s been in the Goodwin family since the nineteen-thirties. (The paper rose from the ashes of the Tulsa Star, which was destroyed during the 1921 massacre.) In Jim Goodwin’s darkened office, a chirping parakeet sat in its cage next to a life-size poster of Roy Rogers. Jim Goodwin eyed me from behind an oak desk and said, “So, based on your time here, what comes to mind when I say ‘North Tulsa’?”
I paused, then repeated the facts that I’d learned during the first meeting of Still She Rises.
“North Tulsa has a high rate of poverty,” I said. “And a big disparity in health outcomes for black women.”
“And?” Jim asked.
“There are no accessible grocery stores,” I said. “And very few social safety nets.”
“And?” Jim asked again. “Keep going.”
I slowed, beginning to grasp where he was leading me.
Too many people, he said, saw his community as a problem to be solved. “Once I tell you where I’m from, you’ll assess me right away, and I’ll have a disadvantage before I even open my mouth,” he told me. He turned to his niece. “White people don’t have the solutions,” he said. “The solutions have to come from people like you.”
In 2016, Regina Goodwin co-authored two bills that reclassified low-level felony drug and property crimes as misdemeanors. Later that year, voters approved a ballot measure that channelled the resultant savings into drug rehabilitation. Many Republican voters supported the measures on fiscal grounds. “It costs $2,000 a year, on average, per person for outpatient mental health and substance abuse services,” Terri White, the commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, told The Oklahoman. “Prison is $19,000 a year per person. . . . It’s pretty simple math.”
Recently, Still She Rises has started to hire more Tulsans, including D’Marria Monday, a local mother who grew up hearing stories about Black Wall Street. As a girl, Monday spent summers helping her grandmother sell lemon tarts in a black church that had burned down in the 1921 massacre and then been rebuilt. In 2005, at the age of twenty-four, Monday, who was seven months pregnant, was arrested, along with twenty others, on a federal drug-conspiracy charge in Texas. She was given a mandatory-minimum sentence of ten years, and gave birth to her son, who was placed in her mother’s care, shortly before going to prison.
Monday was released in 2013, and she returned to Tulsa. “Before I came home, I made up my mind that I wanted to be part of the solution,” she said. “I was going to do work on the north side of Tulsa, as an activist.” She talked to several women in other states who had been shackled while giving birth in prison—a fate that she had narrowly avoided—and were now trying to pass legislation banning the practice. “I soaked up those stories, and I used that pain to fuel my passion,” Monday told me. At a neighborhood block party, she approached Regina Goodwin and told her that they should draft a bill to end the practice in Oklahoma.
“This happens?” Goodwin asked. “It’s so barbaric.”
“Yes,” Monday said, and introduced Goodwin to a woman at the party who had been shackled during childbirth. She recounted her experience on the spot. Monday and Goodwin began working together on a bill, which passed in May.
One day, after classes at Oklahoma State University, Monday drove to the office of Still She Rises and made a case for why the organization should hire her. “I’ve experienced a lot of the things that these women have experienced,” she told the team. “I know the issues surrounding North Tulsa—I’m deeply rooted in this community.” She was hired as a client advocate.
Early in her tenure, Monday drove one woman to a drug-rehabilitation program and helped another get her electricity turned back on. She often served as the point of contact between mothers and child-welfare officials. Recently, she has been brainstorming ideas for new legislation, some of which she discussed this fall, at a conference she hosted with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. Women from Massachusetts and Tennessee had crafted bills designed to encourage judges to consider alternatives to jail or prison for primary caretakers charged with nonviolent offenses. Some of the conference organizers had recently pushed members of Congress to introduce the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which, among other things, would require federal prisons to consider a child’s location when determining the placement of his or her mother.
Monday knows what it’s like to be separated from her child while incarcerated. Although she was arrested in Texas, she served her sentence in Florida. “I was so far away from my son,” she told me. “I missed his first teeth, his first words, his first day of school.” A poem in the waiting room of Still She Rises, written by an incarcerated mother named J. H., reads: “Until we meet again I will cherish every day you were growing inside of me and the 19 hours of labor pain. Until we meet again I will never forget the two hours they gave me to share with you.”
On the first anniversary of Still She Rises, I returned to Oklahoma to visit the women whose cases I’d followed. Melodie Conn arrived first, in a sputtering car that her daughter had nicknamed Madam Blueberry. Conn looked tired. She’d been selling her blood plasma to cover court costs, and the market was surprisingly competitive. “The early bird gets the worm,” she said. “I got up at 5 A.M. to get to my plasma session by 7 A.M.”
Conn was struggling to find steady work. “The charges have given me stigma,” she said. “It’s harder to find housing, harder to find a job.” Her daughter was in the custody of a relative, and their visits were wrenching. The girl had been acting out at school. The previous night, she’d drawn Conn a picture of a puppy, and labelled the sketch with a pleading note: “TAKE ME HOME WITH YOU.”
Linda Meachum arrived next, wearing purple from head to toe, including her headband, slacks, blouse, and earrings. She carried a purple binder that contained her autobiography, titled “Life Story.” (The first page instructed that it should be read with Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” as a musical prelude.) The autobiography was an assignment from rehab, she explained. She’d written about everything from her first sip of peach brandy, at age seven, to her abortion in her teens and the abusive relationships that had spurred her addiction. The process had made her feel optimistic for the first time in decades. “But I still have gobs of court costs,” she said. “And, if I fall off, they’ll get me.” She asked Hamilton how much she owed. Hamilton did the math: $2,858.50, plus four years of interest and charges. Meachum sighed. “Well, I saw it on the sign out front: at any time, a woman can rise,” she said. “And I’m rising. I’m still rising.” (Meachum was recently sent back to jail for those unpaid fees.)
Steinberg also had updates. She was expanding her bail project nationally. “Bail is so gendered,” Steinberg said. “The data shows that a much higher percentage of women can’t afford it, and being the primary caretaker of your kids really puts the pressure on.” Later that day, I went to the Tulsa jail with Steinberg’s “bail disrupters,” and waited for a young mother to be let out. “Hot diggity dog!” the woman said, as she stepped into the sunlight. “I can see outside!” In June, Still She Rises, working with a national group called Civil Rights Corps, filed a class-action lawsuit accusing Tulsa County and the Tulsa Sheriff’s Office of operating a “wealth-based detention scheme” that disproportionately punishes poor defendants.
I also visited Kieonee Brown, who had relapsed after testifying at the trial of her rapist. (He had been sentenced to life in prison.) She was wearing an ankle monitor. We met in the Women in Recovery cafeteria, beneath a poster that read “Your story can change someone else’s.” She was taking a parenting class, where she and her daughter played with dolls and tried out a game called Clean Up Your Room. The girl kept asking her, “Why can’t we live together?”
Two months after my visit, Women in Recovery found a cell phone in Brown’s room, a violation of policy. Some of her calls were attempts to reach her daughter. Ruth Hamilton told me that Brown’s participation in the program would probably be terminated—and that, since she’d entered a blind plea, she would almost certainly go to prison.
Then events took a surprising turn. Hamilton made Hail Mary calls to several people, including the prosecutors in the serial-rapist case. Brown had been their star witness—would they put in a good word? “I see a lot of promise in her,” Hamilton told the prosecutors. “I hope that you two do as well.” One of the prosecutors showed up at Brown’s hearing and said that keeping her on the path to sobriety should be the goal. The judge agreed. For now, Brown has been allowed to remain at Women in Recovery.
“Maybe something is finally changing here,” Hamilton said. It was small, she acknowledged. But it was something.