MCLOUD, Okla. (KTUL) — She’s always been able to sing, but it wasn’t until recently that Ashley decided she could no longer be silent.
She found her voice eight years into a 20-year sentence at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center.
“I want to use my voice to help somebody else, hopefully, not just myself,” said Ashley.
At 22, Ashley was homeless with two children. She found a man to take her in, but according to court documents, endured a year of brutal physical and mental abuse.
“We had to stay at the hospital because they had to keep her in an incubator, the day she was born, he raped me in the hospital shower,” remembered Ashley, talking about the birth of her baby girl.
Sixty-one days after she was born, life changed.
“I told people on the phone, I think she’s gone,” said Ashley.
The “she” was Ashley’s baby girl. The infant was sharing a bed with her and her husband at the time. Around four o’clock in the morning, her husband woke her up, frantically telling her the child wasn’t moving or breathing. She said she called paramedics.
“They show up within minutes,” said Ashley. “I carry her because we were living in the attic. I carry her down to the front door because I was ashamed of the house.”
According to court documents, her husband later told her he put the baby under his leg to sleep. But the medical examiner’s office wrote that it didn’t know what caused her baby girl to die.
“I remember going into this room by myself and holding her and telling her how much I love her,” said Ashley. “How beautiful she was and how sorry I am that I failed.”
Garfield County authorities charged Ashley and her husband with “Child neglect.” She was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Her husband, who was with the baby girl in bed, got only ten years.
An apparent double standard in sentencing
For Ashley, who learned during the trial that she was pregnant again, the day got even worse.
“I was sentenced and I was on the stand, I was going into labor. I had my son within the hour of being sentenced,” said Ashley.
Ashley clearly was no model mother, but why did the law hold her to a tougher standard than the man in the death of her baby girl?
“The woman should have known better and boys will be boys,” said Ashley.
Experts say it’s common in Oklahoma. Our check of child neglect convictions show Ashley's case is far from unusual. When children get hurt by men, mothers frequently pay a bigger price.
“How big do you think the problem is,” asked Channel 8’s I-team reporter, Maureen Wurtz.
“I think it’s very significant,” said Kris Steele, with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
Steele estimates there are around 300-500 women just like Ashley in prison right now. Mothers, serving double, even triple the amount of time behind bars for crimes against children often committed by their partners.
“To sentence a person who’s being abused and failing to report, for longer periods of time than the person who’s guilty of the abuse, that’s just unjust,” said Steele. “I don’t think anybody in Oklahoma would be okay with that dynamic.
It’s an issue that the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition is taking on this legislative session.
“It’s a grown-up version of boys will be boys. It’s the grown-up version of what do you expect the boy to do?” said Liz Charles, with the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition.
Charles said when it comes to analyzing sentencing data, it’s complicated. That’s something Channel 8’s I-team found out first hand. It took weeks to convert sentencing data from the DOC into a searchable program, but even then, the data wasn’t clear.
“So, um, it’s really complicated when you start diffing into the data. We’re not just talking about black and white data,” said Charles.
Charles said one possible reason for the disparity in sentencing could be because there are no sentencing limits on “failure to protect” or “child neglect” cases. People can be sentenced anywhere from probation to life.
Prison reform groups are taking on this issue during the legislative session. There’s one bill out there, HB 2325, that will impose a sentencing limit and allow women to use “domestic violence” as a defense in those specific cases.
The Department of Corrections also would like to see change in the sentencing of child neglect cases. Matt Elliott, with the DOC, said the DOC would like to impose a five-year sentence limit on child neglect cases, as well as reduce the 85 percent law to 60 percent. Right now, an inmate who’s sentenced under the 85% requirement must serve 85 percent of their sentence no matter what, even if they’d taken steps to would normally reduce their time.
“We all deserve a second chance and let me prove to you that I’m not that 22-year-old girl that was broken,” said Ashley.
Her ex is out of prison. She’s still got about nine years left. She doesn’t have much right now, hope can be hard to find in a place like this.
But she does have her voice.