Tana Hackley pats a friend on the shoulder as she leaves prison as a result of Oklahoma's mass commutation of hundreds of people's sentences for low-level drug and theft cases. The state slashed sentences for more than 500 people convicted in low-level drug and theft cases.
TAFT, Oklahoma — Police pulled over Kisha Snider in the tiny Oklahoma town of Boley in 2015; they said she had activated her turn signal too early, made a wide turn and had a burned out light over her license plate. According to the police report, officers found two marijuana cigarettes in her red Mazda.
Prosecutors offered Snider a deal: Go through the state’s drug-court program or face eight years in prison.
Snider struggled for three years to meet all the requirements of drug court, including paying hundreds of dollars for drug tests from the money she earned at an $8.10-an-hour job as a nurse’s aide. Last year, she said, she decided it was just easier to go to prison.
The 42-year-old mother of four learned Friday she would be one of more than 500 men and women in Oklahoma whose felony sentences for drug possession and theft were commuted by a sweeping vote of the state Pardon and Parole Board. Earlier this year, state lawmakers made retroactive a decision by voters to reduce the penalties for small-scale drug possession and theft.
The result: what experts say may be the biggest single-day release of prisoners in U.S. history.
The mass release marks a striking change for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma: Per capita, the state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the U.S. And it locks up women at the highest rate of any state. Before the mass release Monday, state prisons held almost 25,750 people.
As she prepared Sunday for her return to freedom, Snider said she was ecstatic: “I knew this was just a bump in the road.”
And she tried to console those who would remain at the prison.
“Just stay positive, don’t give up,” she said. “Don’t lose hope.”
We visited with a handful of women at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, about 45 miles southeast of Tulsa, on their last day on the grounds of what used to be an orphanage for black children. At least 55 women were slated to leave the minimum security prison on Monday. They were mothers and grandmothers, women who struggled to pay bills and beat addiction while working as dog groomers, hotel clerks and nursing home aides.
Sunday morning, they packed up their few belongings in the dormitory-style housing (one woman was so excited she packed her pillow, making for a hard night’s sleep on the metal bunk beds).
The release was a huge undertaking: A coalition of social service groups worked to help inmates find safe housing and job prospects, obtain valid state identification cards and get clean outfits to wear on the trip home.
They were preparing for a journey that’s about more than just physical distance.
Tana Hackley, 46, will owe almost $5,000 in court costs when she returns home to western Oklahoma. But she faced almost 15 years for meth possession at one point—so she’s grateful for a fresh start.
Once she pays her court costs, this felony will be removed from her record, leaving her with only a misdemeanor conviction for the crime. That means better options for jobs and housing—even college tuition assistance and technical skills training that a felony conviction might have barred her from.
“Places like Dollar General wouldn’t even hire me before,” Hackley said, smiling through tears. “I can do anything now. I don’t have to hold myself back.”
Kris Steele, a Republican, served as Oklahoma’s Speaker of the House when the state first tried reforming the parole system in 2012. Many of those early attempts were thwarted by elected officials who viewed being tough on crime as politically advantageous, he said.
“We have decades of politics and policy that led to our incarceration rates,” Steele said. “Our system has been very punitive, it’s been based on retribution.
“But ultimately these reforms were directly the will of the people, the voice of the people,” he said.
Oklahoma voters approved a state initiative in 2016 that reclassified certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies.
This year, lawmakers passed a bill making those changes apply to people who were already serving felony sentences for those crimes.
Commutation alters a prison sentence that officials consider unjust and can only be granted by Oklahoma’s governor, once someone has been recommended by the state Pardon and Parole Board.
It has been extremely rare—in fact, Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board didn’t review a single application for commutation for three years, an investigation found by The Frontier Found. A new executive director and a fresh lineup of board members have speeded things up, taking on a backlog of more than 2,600 commutation applications.
Experts say parole is crucial to reducing incarceration. In a report published this year examining practices among U.S. states, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice said some state parole boards have so much power and discretion over incarceration rates, their impact could be more significant than the judges and courts that send people to prison.
Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, shook the hands of the women as they left Eddie Warrior Monday afternoon. Many of the women are mothers, hoping to return home to help raise their children and grandchildren. Donnie Sue Crow, 36, had a baby and a toddler at home when she got locked up, after she failed to make payments and show up for court dates while on probation for marijuana possession. Her mistakes meant she was sent to prison to serve 10 years for having less than half a gram of marijuana on her during a 2017 arrest.
She’s missed first steps and first words. Without the commutation, she would likely miss their first days of school. Crow’s mother, Connie Copeland, clung to the prison’s chain-link fence as the women began to exit. Her youngest grandbaby was only 5 months old when his mother was locked up.
“I know she’s gonna be stronger when she comes out than when she went in, but this didn’t need to happen,” Copeland said. “She spent a year away from her babies.”
Faydon, now a toddler, had barely any hair when his mother went to prison. When she scooped him into her arms Monday, he had long brown ringlets. The family waited to cut his hair until Crow came home.
Not every one of the released had friends and family eagerly awaiting them Monday afternoon. Some took prison transport to Tulsa with a bus ticket to wherever home was.
Snider’s mother, Martha Lynch, and cousin, Niese Jenkins, waited anxiously to greet her as she walked out in a clean pair of white jeans, black sneakers and a sparkly T-shirt. They wanted to drive her home to Boley in time to surprise her three youngest children as they returned from school.
“Oh my God, I’m so happy,” Snider hollered and wiped the tears streaming down her face. Her cousin hugged her, then posed for a flock of television cameras, yelling: “We’re going home!”