The face of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis
It’s no secret that Oklahoma is in crisis.
In 2016, we became the largest per-capita incarcerator on the face of the planet. Even more alarming, Oklahoma has led the nation in putting women behind bars for more than 26 years—a rate that has doubled since 1990 and is more than twice the national incarceration rate. To refer to the excessive sentencing in Oklahoma merely as an issue is a gross understatement. It’s an emergency.
Behind these statistics are real women with stories. One of these women is Ashley Garrison. Ashley and her second husband were sleeping alongside their baby in the couple’s bed when they awoke and realized she was no longer breathing. Ashley is currently serving her eighth of a 20-year sentence at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center for child neglect following the death of her infant.
Co-sleeping is not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, but remains common, with the percentage of babies sharing a sleep space rising from 6.5 percent in 1993 to 13.5 percent in 2010 in the United States. Deaths related to the practice have typically only lead to criminal charges when the parent is found to be under the influence, which Ashley was not.
Ashley and her husband faced trial separately in Garfield County. Ashley took a blind plea on her public defender’s assurance that she would be paroled. Instead, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison by Judge Dennis Hladik—despite the District Attorney only asking for 10. Her spouse, who Ashley says abused and raped her throughout their relationship and who later admitted to placing his leg over the baby that fateful night to help her sleep, was sentenced to 10 years. He was released last year.
Ashley’s voice crackled over the speaker phone at her mother Vanessa Blaylock’s Tulsa home. Sitting at her dining room table, Vanessa’s eyes welled with tears as her daughter recounted her story. Sometimes she seemed moved by pride of her daughter’s strength—other times, she was clearly moved by pain.
Vanessa, too, has felt the teeth of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. In 2008, her father passed away, and she inherited the family business during the global financial crisis. When the business failed and defaulted on its contracts, Vanessa was held responsible and sentenced to four years in prison. “It was a horrible, horrible deal,” Vanessa said. After being released, she began working for a faith-based organization called Prison Fellowship and volunteering at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center with women about to re-enter.
Ashley hadn’t met her spouse before her mom’s imprisonment. Back then she was living with and working for her mother after escaping with her children from her first abusive marriage. “She was a teenage mom in a horrible relationship that she didn’t want me to know [about] until the day it exploded, and he took off with the kids. That’s when I found out just what she was living in,” Vanessa said.
That night Ashley was assaulted, and she decided she could no longer hide the abuse from her mother and continue enduring it alone. Vanessa called the police and they tracked down her ex-husband to his grandmother’s and had to talk him out of the home. DHS granted Ashley full custody of her two children, allowing only supervised visits with their father. When Ashley went to prison, he was granted full custody of their two kids and does not permit contact from Ashley or any of her family.
“She lived at home until I went to prison,” Vanessa said. “Ashley was left on her own. She’s got two kids. She worked for me, so she lost her job. She lost her support system. She lost everything, and that’s how she ended up in such a mess. She was on her own and homeless and he [was] right there. That’s why she was even in that house. Everything she had before was gone. If I would have been there, she never would never have been in that house. She would have been home.”
Ashley remembers those days with the same inflection of pain, fear, and longing. “Before I came to prison, especially after my mom had gotten locked up I was lost and trying to fill a hole and I didn’t know what to put in it. I was bouncing from relationship to relationship, I was afraid of being alone, afraid of being homeless—and after my daughter died, I felt like my entire life came apart. I didn’t know who I was or what I was about,” she said.
On the day Ashley was sentenced, she gave birth—in handcuffs—to her fourth child. Ashley was allowed one hour with her newborn baby before he was taken away and placed for adoption. Not one to shy away from a line of tough questioning, she falls silent when the subject turns to her birthing experience in the county. A voice breaks through Ashley’s muffled crying to announce 60 seconds left on the phone call.
Vanessa’s heart breaks for her daughter, who still can’t summon the words to tell this part of her story. “If that doesn’t tell you what that trauma does to a woman … she’s been through prison, death, losing the kids, but the one thing that she can’t even communicate is that experience. I can’t imagine.”
Of her low points in prison over these eight years, beyond the missed birthdays and anniversary of her daughter’s death, Ashley is most stung by the day the rights to her youngest child were terminated. “It was my 25th birthday,” Ashley remembers. “I attempted suicide in one of the showers.”
Ashley’s suicide attempt came after a period of recovery from her initial years in prison. “When I first got here, I was very angry—still dealing with the grief from the death of my daughter and the fact that I just got 20 years and my co-defendant got 10. I was abusing pills and was self-destructive. I was a cutter.
“I got sober March 1 of 2012 and I quit doing all of that and [began] actively working an AA program,” Ashley said. She was placed on a one-year waiting list before being admitted. “During the time I’ve been here I’ve completed multiple parenting classes, relationship classes, anything that I can do to be a better mom a better woman and to realize I don’t need someone to make me whole,” Ashley said.
In 2017, Ashley enrolled in a cosmetology program lead by former inmate Christie Luther. “I think my biggest change was getting into this program. I am certified for everything from manicures to pedicures to facials and hair cutting. It’s taught me independence and self-confidence which is something I didn’t think I’d ever have. It’s helping me get out of myself and be of service to others. That is really what has saved me,” Ashley said.
Ashley completed her hours for her master instructor license for cosmetology the week before our interview and passed her exam the day after we spoke. “[People] might think I’m just a violent offender and I couldn’t be an asset to the outside community,” she said. “Let me prove you wrong and show you that I’m a woman of worth and I’m somebody that can help other women that are in prison and help them become the women they want to be and need to be.”
This milestone is especially impressive considering the blow Ashley received last year. In 2018, Ashley’s case was presented to Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board as a part of Project Commutation, launched by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR). Commutation is a two-stage process that aims to correct unjust sentences. If granted by the parole board and approved by the governor, a person’s sentence is reduced.
The initiative focused on prisoners serving excessive sentences for drug crimes now classified as misdemeanors since the passage of State Question 780. While Ashley’s charges are not drug-related, advocates felt her sentencing was excessive and presented her case along with three others of similar nature. One of these was Tondalo Hall’s, a woman sentenced to 30 years for a failure to protect charge while her abuser was paroled. Because the women’s cases are classified as violent crimes, the board denied them immediately without discussing or reviewing them.
Newly-elected Gov. Kevin Stitt has made promises to reform Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, electing three new parole board members in February of 2019. One of these new members is Adam Luck, CEO of a non-profit called City Care. Since his appointment, Luck has posted on Twitter and Facebook asking people to reach out with information on cases believed to be eligible for commutation, parole, or pardon.
I reached out to Adam to inform him of Ashley’s case and asked what he thinks people can do if they feel compelled to get involved. “Honestly, I think people would be so enlightened if they actually came [to meetings]. There is so much that goes on in these meetings, so people would get a much better understanding of what this process is like,” Luck said.
Colleen McCarty, a TU law student involved with Project Commutation, has more to say about Ashley’s case and society’s tendency to place excessive blame on mothers for child-related charges—especially for women of color and women living in poverty. “It becomes insurmountable the number of things [women] have to do in order to be in compliance with what we think is a good mother. And then we let them sit in front of a jury and let a jury judge their horrible situation. A horrible situation for everyone involved. No one is happy about what happened to that child. It was extremely unfortunate. There are a lot of generally systemic problems with that whole process,” McCarty said. She hopes that bringing Ashley’s story to a broader audience will re-ignite her commutation.
“I want people to know that I might be a violent offender but I’m a darn good woman,” Ashley said. “I’m a good mom. I’m a good daughter, sister, partner—and I just want to be of service to people like myself.”
McCarty says it’s possible that Gov. Stitt could allow the previously-denied cases involved with Project Commutation to be reevaluated this year in front of the new parole board, forgoing the three-year required wait time for denied applicants to reapply. If that happens, Ashley could have another chance at freedom—if not, she’ll continue her life as so many in Oklahoma do: apart, imprisoned, erased.