Women in Recovery
Candida Ulibarri, left, and other Women in Recovery participants listen to Gov. Mary Fallin in her office Tuesday, April 12, 2017. (William W. Savage III)

As Candida Ulibarri stepped away from a podium Tuesday afternoon in the Oklahoma State Capitol, Gov. Mary Fallin offered a lighthearted analysis of the 33-year-old mother.

“I think she’s got a future in politics,” Fallin said with a smile.

Ulibarri had just quickly and confidently told her story of abuse, drug addiction and recovery at a press conference. Fallin was announcing an innovative state contract with Tulsa’s Family & Children’s Services, a non-profit that has gained notoriety for its Women in Recovery prison-diversion program.

But instead of a future in politics, Ulibarri was focused on her immediate future, one that could take a big step forward today.

“Since being in this program, it has been life-changing,” Ulibarri said. “DHS told me I wouldn’t get my daughter back for 16 months at the least. I go to court tomorrow to close the case a year earlier than what was expected.”

Those gathered around Ulibarri — including Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Tuttle), Sen. Kim David (R-Wagoner) and more than a dozen women in recovery — applauded profusely.

Ulibarri said today also represents one full year sober.

“I look different. I carry myself differently,” she said. “Women in Recovery fought for me. When the jails and the courts said I wasn’t savable, Women in Recovery saw potential in me that I didn’t even see in myself.”

Women In Recovery
Candida Ulibarri speaks at a press conference regarding the Women in Recovery program Tuesday, April 11, at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (William W. Savage III)

Funding model first to target female incarceration

Tuesday, Fallin, Osborn, David and George Kaiser Family Foundation executive director Ken Levit all spoke of Women in Recovery‘s increased potential to change lives owing to a new “pay for success” funding model.

“It’s transformative. This was a more than three-year process from the bill introduction side to today,” Levit said. “But there is a reason why it took us a long time to do this: It’s never been done before. This is the first pay-for-success contract in the country dealing with female incarceration.”

Levit said there are fewer than two dozen programs using a pay-for-success funding model in the entire country. From an OMES press release handed out Tuesday:

The first PFS project was launched in Peterborough, United Kingdom, in 2010 and was aimed at reducing prisoner recidivism. Today there are more than 70 projects in 18 countries, with 16 projects in the U.S.

In short, Family & Children’s Services will still have its Women in Recovery program supported by $1.8 million in annual donations from George Kaiser Family Foundation, but women who are successfully diverted from incarceration will trigger the agency to draw state funding — a portion of the money it would have cost to imprison a woman, which Fallin said is roughly $22,500 a year.

“This is a game changer for generations to come,” David said at the press conference. “This is true criminal justice reform. We’re keeping women out of prison, we’re keeping children out of DHS custody and with their moms where they belong, and we are changing their lives.”

Osborn echoed her Senate counterpart and told Fallin they would fight to ensure ongoing funding. Osborn said she fell in love with the program’s work while touring the facility in Tulsa.

“I’m one of those people who grew up fortunate,” she said. “I grew up with a nuclear family. I grew up with food on the table. My parents checked my homework and expected me to go to college, and they paid for it. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are, and not everybody is.”

‘Homeless, helpless and completely hopeless’

Neither Ulibarri nor Sonya Pyles grew up in that scenario. Both women touched upon the abuse they endured as children and how they turned to drugs to escape the pain.

“I grew up in an extremely violent and chaotic home. I was physically, emotionally and sexually abused from age 2 through 9,” said Pyles, who graduated from Women in Recovery in June 2015. “I began experimenting with drugs at the age of 13. By the age of 19, I was in full-blown addiction.”

At age 23, Pyles said she received a six-year sentence for a drug-related crime.

“During my time in the Department of Corrections, I received no drug treatment or skills to aid me in my life,” Pyles, now 42, said. “It wasn’t long after being released from prison that I found myself repeating the same chaotic, addictive lifestyle, and I re-offended again and again. My life continued to spiral completely out of control.

“Upon entering Women in Recovery, I was homeless, helpless and completely hopeless.”

‘I love myself today’

As Pyles and Ulibarri told their stories, David and others in the room noticeably fought back tears. Asked after the press conference about her emotions, David spoke of family.

“I have nieces that have gone through and are going through (…) addiction and the threat of prison. One of them went to prison, and they lost their kids,” David said. “They’re all in recovery, and they have their kids back now.”

But David said meeting the women gathered with her and the governor Tuesday had an effect on her.

“What impacted me the most is that these women have issues going back to childhood, and it stems from the physical and emotional abuse that led to their drug problems,” David said. “So really the biggest impact was just meeting these ladies and hearing their stories of what they’ve survived through their childhood and where they are now.

“I think this is a wonderful group of women, and I think this is one of the best programs in the nation.”

Officials said the new pay-for-success contract is expected to allow up to 125 women to be admitted into the program annually for up to five years.

After the press conference, Ulibarri spoke of how much she has changed in six months and offered advice to people fighting the same battles she is.

“Don’t give up. Keep looking up and keep pushing forward, because it’s hard. There were days when I thought I was going to die and I wasn’t going to make it,” she said. “But here I am. Today, I have hope for the future when, before, I didn’t think I was going to make it. I just knew I was going to die. So I just kept the hope and faith that one day life would be better. I wanted something better.”

While she may not take Fallin’s suggestion of a career in politics, Ulibarri said she is “1,000 percent hopeful” and that her future is “bright.”

“I have something to look forward to every day. The program is hard, don’t get me wrong, the program is very very hard. But it is worth it,” Ulibarri said. “Right now, I know that I’m going to have a career, I’m going to have a future, I have my children. I’m going to be successful. I don’t feel like a failure right now. My confidence and my self-esteem is so much better than it was before. I didn’t used to have any self-worth. Now, I love myself today, and I’ve only been in the program six months.”