This story was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
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 inside the walls 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 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 earlier this year examining parole 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 discretion and power 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 on 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!”
At Jess Dunn Correctional Center, where about 1,100 low-level male inmates are held, media members who arrived were immediately told “No, you’re in the wrong place. Eddie Warrior is about a mile northeast of here.”
The focus on Monday, given Oklahoma’s poor track record of female incarceration, was on the women who were being released from prison. But there were men getting out too. And though they didn’t have Gov. Stitt holding a press conference in their honor, they didn’t seem to mind.
Compared to the coordinated release of the female inmates, the male inmates just kind of hung around in the Jess Dunn visitor center until someone came to get them. Over the course of Monday morning, cars would trickle into the visitor center parking lot. Some were there to pick up inmates who were getting released on regular discharges. But some were there to pick up inmates whose sentences had been commuted.
The scene was similar no matter if it was a girlfriend, or a wife, or a parent who arrived to pick someone up. They would park, get out of their vehicles and stretch, then enter the building while carrying a bag of clothing. A few minutes later they would come out with a happy ex-inmate in tow.
“I’m so happy, you don’t understand,” said one man, who said he had about 10 years left on his sentence when he found out it was being commuted. “Normally I would talk to the media because I love attention, but you gotta understand, I just want to get out of here.”
At about 9 a.m., Marquiest Heard left Jess Dunn. Heard, who said he had already filed commutation paperwork when he found out he was getting released early, said he was trying to keep a low profile upon leaving prison, so he didn’t want any pictures taken. But the 29-year-old, who had been serving a 12-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2016 to possession of a controlled substance, said the first thing he was going to do was find a job.
“They had a job fair here to get us ready, because normally you know, a convicted felon, finding a job isn’t easy,” he said. “But they told us that fair basically that if we wanted a job that we could go to work on Monday if we wanted, like right off the bat.”
Prison officials said 18 men got released from Jess Dunn on Monday. They all walked out the visitor center gate as regular prison activities carried on behind them. A released inmate would hug a family member in the parking lot, all while orange jumpsuit wearing inmates were less than 100 yards away in the yard, walking, exercising or playing horseshoes.
A former inmate would walk out of the gate, get into a waiting car and drive away. And five minutes later an inmate work crew would come out of the same gate with hampers full of laundry, headed for some other location on the prison grounds.
The male prisoner release ended as quietly on Monday as it started. Prison officials said they hoped to get the men out of the prison by early Monday, but by late into the morning, it appeared only four or five of the 18 inmates had left Jess Dunn.
However it turned out that the majority of the men had already left, having climbed aboard a white van earlier in the morning that was headed to a bus stop in nearby Muskogee. Wherever they went from there was up to them.
The prisoner release became real on Monday, but it was spoken into existence on Friday in a small room at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City.
As the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to send more than 500 commutation requests forward to Gov. Kevin Stitt, there was applause, there were cheers, and there were some tears.
But once the room quieted down, board member Robert Gilliland, who led the meeting, said he felt the names of those whose sentences were set to be commuted should be read into the record.
That responsibility fell to Justin Wolf, the pardon and parole board’s general counsel.
Wolf, seated at a table to Gilliland’s right, dutifully read off all the 527 names. It took about 15 minutes.
“I’ve done enough public speaking as an attorney that I knew to just use a lot of catch breaths,” Wolf said after the hearing. He said he learned relatively early on that he would be the one to read the names once it became clear that the en masse commutations were actually going to happen.
“At that point they kind of looked at me and said ‘Justin, you use more words in a day than everyone else combined,’” he joked. “So that was my task.”
Most of the attendees at Friday’s hearing had some skin in the game, so to speak. There were public defenders, lawmakers, activists and even a few people who had been formerly incarcerated. But perhaps no one was more invested in the happenings than Kris Steele.
Steele launched Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform in 2015, and a year later saw two state questions passed that revamped the way Oklahomans looked at some low level drug and property crimes.
So there was crying and applause and cheering during the hearing, and in the middle of the room sat Steele, doing all three.
“It makes me very proud and happy for the families in the state of Oklahoma who are going to be directly reunited and impacted,” Steele said. “The conversation that is occurring, the movement that is happening, is very encouraging, and I think the event today … represents who we are at our best when we’re focused on helping each other reach our full potential.”
Steele cautioned that while the prisoner release is “a significant step,” there’s still much work to do. Sen. Jon Echols, who co-sponsored the bill that resulted in the prisoner release, noted during the hearing that it merely brought Oklahoma from having the highest incarceration rate in the nation to the next-highest incarceration rate in the nation.
“I realize that the work ahead is going to be hard and heavy, and there’s a lot of it to do,” Steele said. “We are having to reconsider decades of policies that were focused on retribution and punishment … We realize in order to get to the place we need to be we’re going to have to continue to move forward. But I am optimistic.”
But not everyone is as optimistic about the commutations as Steele and the rest of those at the hearing seemed to be. But Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steve Bickley said he is convinced that the majority of Oklahomans are in favor of the criminal justice reform movement taking place in the state, and, more importantly, “It’s still the right thing to do.”
During Friday’s hearing, the common refrain was that the prisoners set for release were “low-level, non-violent offenders.” Bickley said it several times on Friday, as did Gilliland. And when Stitt showed up for a press conference, he said those same words multiple times.
Bickley knows there are some people yet to be won over by the softening of Oklahoma’s long-held tough on crime stance, but he thinks the results will eventually be convincing enough to change minds.
“These inmates who are being released, they’re getting a second chance to do what’s right,” Bickley said, who noted that of 30 inmates whose sentences were commuted last December, 29 of them have stayed out of trouble. “They’ve got choices to make and we hope they make their best choices.”