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Criminalized survivors of domestic violence in Oklahoma may see relief from proposed bill

OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

April Wilkens has been in prison for 25 years. Over the phone, she shared a letter her then 18-year-old son wrote to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

“April was taken from me in my childhood, and that can never be fixed. Now, the reason I write this letter today is that you could grant me a relationship that I have never had. I think my mother has paid a price and has plans to do great things on the outside,” Wilkens’ son wrote.

Over a decade later and after four requests for parole and two for commutation denied, Wilkens is still in prison for first degree murder. In 1998, she shot and killed her ex-fiance, Terry Carlton, after she said he raped her, handcuffed her, and threatened to kill her.

Wilkens said for criminalized survivors of domestic abuse, the violence continues behind bars.

“We had a facility-wide shakedown yesterday, and we were strip-searched again. And all of this, it’s degrading, it’s traumatizing. And on top of that, you know, our hands were bound, and our cells were tossed. And I will just tell you that things like that never cease to remind me of what Terry did to me,” Wilkens said.   

A push for justice reform for criminalized survivors could help April and others like her go free. Republican Representative Toni Hasenbeck’s House Bill 1639 would establish the Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act, which would create post-conviction relief opportunities and introduce a sentencing cap of 10 years for individuals for which domestic violence can be proven to be a major influence on their crime.

Damion Shade, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said the bill could help protect survivors of domestic violence from a system that is currently failing them. Data from Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice shows from over 40,000 domestic violence calls in Oklahoma County in 2021, fewer than 1,000 arrests were made. Additionally, a study by FWD.us shows 66% of women in Oklahoma prisons experienced intimate partner violence within a year of their incarceration.

“All those women calling in for help, then you recognize that two-thirds of the women in Oklahoma prisons are those women, the same people who the police failed over and over again. That is the cycle that I think this type of legislation is meant to help break,” Shade said.

Shari McDonald knows about the cycle of harm criminalized survivors experience. She’s been in prison for over 40 years for first degree murder after she said her abusive husband threatened and coerced her into committing an armed robbery where one person was killed.

“I didn’t want to be a part of what was going on that day. But had I said no, I would not be here today either. My children would not be here today either,” McDonald said.

Colleen McCarty, an attorney with at the Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and one of the founders of the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition, said based on a survey of incarcerated women in Oklahoma, anywhere from 100 to 500 women like Wilkens and McDonald could get post-conviction relief under the Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act.

McCarty said while there is more public and bipartisan support for this legislation than anything she’s worked on in the past, there is still more to be done in terms of increasing community awareness of the reality of criminalized survivors, who she said have been depicted in unrealistic ways in the past.

“When we ask for grace and mercy for women, for the majority of women, they’ve acted in ways that society does not approve of, is not the female ideal. That those people then somehow aren’t worth our mercy or grace - I just think we need to reject that,” McCarty said. 

Additionally, McDonald said access to therapy while in prison is needed to help criminalized survivors stay out of prison once they leave.

“Those women that have become victims of domestic violence come in here and they get into relationships. And I see domestic violence continue in here. It doesn’t end. So, when they leave here, they’re still stuck. They go right back out in the same mindset. And they come right back. Because they go back out and they get into the same situation that they were in before,” McDonald said.

If House Bill 1639 is passed, Wilkens said she could start making up for lost time.

“It can mean other children don’t have to grow up without their moms like my son had to. He’s 32 now, and he has a child of his own. So, this legislation could mean that my four-year-old granddaughter doesn’t have to keep growing up with a grandma in prison,” Wilkens said.

The bill passed unanimously out of committee, but must pass on the House floor this week in order to move forward this Legislative session.

Hannah France is a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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