'Now there is hope': Effort underway to release nonviolent offenders
Colleen Johnson was stunned to learn she would be released four years early from the Oklahoma City Community Corrections Center. A life tangled in abuse and drug addiction landed the Kansas native in prison for a sentence of five years, but she was granted an early release in December by order of the governor.
“I knew I was on the list, but just one day in December, I was told to pack my stuff up to leave,” Johnson said.
“I kept thinking, they are going to call me in again and say something messed up and I was not going to be able to go.”
Since former Gov. Mary Fallin commuted her sentence, Johnson has remained sober, landed a job, found support in a church and is trying to repair a relationship with her teenage son.
She also hopes more men and women currently incarcerated are given another chance like she was.
“That’s my hope,” Johnson said. “I want people who are (in prison) to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt appears to agree as he appointed new members to the pardon and parole board last month with an edict to find more people like Johnson.
Earlier this month, the board unanimously paroled nearly 70 nonviolent offenders.
It was a step towards combating Oklahoma’s status as the nation’s top state for incarceration.
“We as Oklahomans have to understand that the big elephant staring us in the face is having to spend $2 billion over the next few years on new prisons,” said Kevin Armstrong, board president for Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE).
“The best way to reverse that is through the pardon and parole board really taking a look at people who are in prison.”
Fallin earned bipartisan praise following her commutation of 21 female inmates in December, which Armstrong said new Gov. Kevin Stitt “surely noticed.”
In addition to saying he wants to release more nonviolent offenders, Stitt has also discussed ways to help ease the transition for released inmates, including restructuring fines and court costs, allowing parole officer meetings to be conducted electronically and reforming career licenses to allow more felons to access employment.
“We’ve got to make sure they are set up for success when they get out of prison,” Stitt said during a public event this month. “There are all sorts of things we can do to help stack the deck,” in favor of those being released.
Johnson said she’s not angry about her time in prison and viewed it as the “reality check” she needed.
But she’s also grateful to not be serving the rest of her sentence because she now has an opportunity to work, reconnect with her family and find ways to help other women struggling with drug addiction.
“My message to others (in prison) is don’t give up because it is so easy to give up,” Johnson said. “But now there is hope because there is ... an effort to help more people like me.”