TAFT, Okla. – Tess Harjo, 28, couldn’t restraint her joy. She hugged and hugged her aunts, her grandmother and other relatives, one after another, on her first day of freedom from prison in nearly two years.
“It just feels crazy to think I don’t have to go back in there,” she said, peering at the 13-foot high chain-link fence. “I hope my family takes me to Olive Garden. I want to go eat.”
Harjo was among 462 Oklahoma inmates released early from their prison sentences Monday, the largest one-day commutation of imprisoned individuals in U.S. history. She was released 22 months into a 15-year sentence for possession of methamphetamine.
All the prisoners were serving time for low-level drug offenses and property crimes made misdemeanors by voter approval of a statewide ballot question in 2016, and enacted into law by the Oklahoma Legislature earlier this year.
Seventy were prisoners at the Eddie Warrior Women’s Correctional Facility in this spot-on-the-road town in northeast Oklahoma. They paraded to the exit of minimum security prison in a one-by-one line.
Other prisons across the state freed scores of male convicts.
Gov. Kevin Stitt authorized the mass release in response to the state Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation to commute the prisoners’ sentences. Additional releases are planned later for what officials say will amount to 2,000 overall commutations.
Oklahoma had been the state with the highest per-capita imprisonment rate in the nation. That dubious title may now go to Louisiana.
Stitt attended the release of the women prisoners. He said two dozen reentry fairs were held to help inmates get jobs and become productive citizens. Social service agencies, nonprofit organizations and churches offered support for finding employment, housing, education and other needs.
“This is the first day of the rest of your lives,” he said. “We are beside you.”
The women shook hands with the governor as they emerged from the prison. They then waded into the crowd to find their loved ones, falling into their arms and often crying.
“This feels like a blessing,” said inmate Donnie Crow as she picked up her young son. “I’m so happy I get to be home with my kids.”
Reporter Chesley Oxendine of the Muskogee, Okla., Phoenix contributed details for this story.