After Oklahoma's historic commutation, former inmates prepare for Christmas outside prison
Michael Taylor doesn’t know how he will spend Christmas this year.
But he knows that no matter what he does, this Christmas will be better than the last.
Because Taylor is no longer in prison, and he’s sober for the first time in decades.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve been free for Christmas, and I’m 58 years old,” he said. “It just means more than anything else in the world to me.”
Taylor was one of more than 450 low-level drug and property crime offenders released from Oklahoma prisons in November. What is thought to be the largest commutation in U.S. history wiped away a combined 1,931 years in prison.
Now, Taylor and hundreds of other Oklahomans are trying to find their place in society and get their lives back on track.
Originally from Lawton, Taylor is currently homeless and jumping from shelter to shelter. But he will start a new job before the month’s end and is working on getting into a sober living home with the help of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), a local nonprofit that primarily helps men with alcohol and substance abuse issues.
Taylor has been in and out of prison for as long as he can remember. His record lists charges of larceny, robbery, burglary and possession of controlled substance since 1986.
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He started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at age 16. He recounts the following decades based on his drug of choice at the time.
Every time Taylor went to prison, he assumed he’d die behind bars. Any day outside prison is a blessing, he said.
“I’m trying the hardest I’ve ever tried in my life," he said. "I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I know I’m never going back to prison again."
'Their love is what keeps me going'
In southeastern Oklahoma, Amber Helmert, 35, and her two kids will don matching pajamas on Christmas Eve and leave out cookies and hot ramen for Santa.
The ramen is a weird family tradition, Helmert says with a chuckle.
When she was pregnant with her daughter Graycee, 6, Helmert constantly craved ramen so sharing the noodle soup with Santa has become a Christmas tradition.
With the help of the Resonance Center for Women, Helmert chose to spend six months in a sober living home in Tulsa. She couldn’t be happier to go home for two days to spend the holidays with her mother, children and grandparents in Wilburton.
Mere days before Christmas last year, Helmert was incarcerated at Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft for possession of a controlled substance. She wasn’t supposed to get out of prison until late next year.
But earlier this year, Oklahoma legislators and Gov. Kevin Stitt approved legislation making retroactive State Question 780, which made certain property and drug crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies. As a result, hundreds of nonviolent offenders were released from prison.
Now, Graycee and Landan Jake, 7, are Helmert’s primary motivators never to use drugs again.
“They love me unconditionally, and their love is what keeps me going,” she said.
“I don’t want my kids growing up knowing that their mother didn’t try. You would have to have no emotion to sit there and watch your kids grow up without being in their lives.”
In prison, inmates always heard rumors about this or that law changing, but in reality, nothing ever changed ... until it did, Helmert said.
The mass commutation was unexpected, she said. She also couldn’t believe the extent to which prison officials helped inmates with job fairs and one-on-one consultations prior to their release.
After multiple stints in rehab and numerous brushes with the law, Helmert said it’s hard to describe what changed to make her want to stay sober this time.
“Sometimes you just wake up and you know you’re ready,” she said. “I got that in the middle of my sentence. I just woke up one day and knew I wanted to go to sober living. I just don't choose to get high anymore.”
State officials have claimed the mass commutation means Oklahoma no longer has the highest incarceration rate in the country. Now, Oklahoma reportedly has the No. 2 incarceration rate, behind Louisiana.
It’s entirely likely Oklahoma’s drop in the rankings is true, but it still remains one of the worst states for incarceration, said Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.
“We should not feel that that is something worth celebrating until we are out of those top spots,” she said. “Simply being barely in that No. 2 spot is not good enough. We’ve still got some big changes to make.”
Oklahoma has far too many people serving lengthy prison sentences and the majority of those in Oklahoma jails are being detained pre-trial and could be there for weeks, months or even years, she said.
The state also has, for a long time, had the highest rate of incarcerating women, many of whom are the main provider for their children, she said.
“Whether it’s in jail pre-trial or in prison after conviction, we are tearing and keeping families apart on a daily basis,” McAfee said.
Going it alone
Exiting prison and re-entering society as a recovering addict can be hard for people who don't have a built-in support system.
Ian Fine, 30, is living in Oklahoma City, but doesn't have family in the area. His sister, who picked him up from the Jim E. Hamilton Correctional Center in November, lives in Texas.
Fine is staying with friends, but spends most of his time working six days a week as a doorman at a local strip club. Because he mostly relies on friends to give him rides to and from work, Fine doesn't think he will keep his second job at an Oklahoma City restaurant that's far away from where he's living.
"This is a lot harder for me because I am doing it by myself," he said. "I just try to take every day one step at a time and I try to make the most of it, and not every day is going to be a good day."
Fine said the key to getting by is keeping busy and not thinking about relapsing. In 2017, Fine pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia. He was jailed after failing to comply with the requirements of a drug court program.
Because of his lack of transportation and near-constant work schedule, Fine won't be able to travel to Texas to see his sister for the holidays, but he's trying to stay positive. He stays active with TEEM and is focused on finding a more permanent place to live.
Danny Mata, 32, said his family wasn't excited to hear he was getting out early because they assumed he'd almost immediately relapse and quickly end up back in jail.
"I’d been in and out of the county jail so much in the past three years," he said. "Every time I’d get out, I’d be high within hours. I wouldn’t answer my phone because I’d be so ashamed of what I was doing."
But this time is different. Mata is living in a sober living house, and said he's trying to prove to his family he's a changed man. He was delighted when his cousins invited him to spend Christmas in Norman — a telling sign he's making progress.
When he was released from the John H. Lilley Correctional Center, Mata had 832 days remaining on his sentence for various drug convictions.
Some of the best advice Mata received in prison came from some other inmates who were doing "serious time," he said. They'd tell Mata he had so much going for him outside the prison walls, including a 2-year-old daughter he hasn't gotten to know.
Last week, he called his daughter's grandparents, who are caring for the young girl. Mata told them he's serious about getting his life together and wants to come visit when he can save up money for a train ticket to Colleyville, Texas.
"When I was in prison, there was a lot of restless nights where I’d think about it about how I truly have not been in my daughter’s life," he said. "That’s been a huge chunk of my motivation to be doing the right thing this time."