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Once imprisoned, an OSU-Tulsa graduate takes on Oklahoma’s female incarceration problem

Statewide activist and public speaker D'Marria Monday poses for a photo in Tulsa's historic Greenwood District.
 
D’Marria Monday isn’t content to hang out in the shadow of her famous uncle – OSU legend and Olympic gold medalist wrestler Kenny Monday.
 
“I want to create my own legacy. But having the footsteps of greatness behind me inspires me,” she says.
 
Monday is on the front lines of the battle to improve the lives of women in prison, particularly in Oklahoma where women are incarcerated at a higher rate than anywhere in the nation.
 
After graduating from OSU-Tulsa in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship – with minors in marketing and management – Monday formed a community development organization called Block Builderz to provide advocacy, resources and services for women in prison and for those who have been released.
 
As a statewide activist and public speaker, Monday served as a presenter during the 2019 John Hope Franklin National Symposium May 29-31 in Tulsa.
 
Her organization, Block Builderz, is near and dear to her heart because it’s personal. She knows firsthand what women endure in prison because she’s been there.
 
“I read once that those who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. Well, that’s me,” she says.
 

A Troubled Past

 
Raised in Midland, Texas by a single mother, Monday was in and out of juvenile detention and county jail throughout her early life.
 
“I was a troubled child. The people I grew up with and idolized were in the drug trade,” she says. “I started shoplifting and running away when I was 12 because I found more peace away from home than in the home.”
 
At age 25, Monday was federally indicted for conspiracy to distribute cocaine base, known as ‘crack.’ Although she ranked 19th of 21 individuals charged in the conspiracy, Monday still faced life in prison.
 
“It didn’t matter that I had no other drug charges except simple possession or that it was my first felony. It didn’t matter that I was a nonviolent offender,” Monday says. “And it didn’t matter that I was 7 ½ months pregnant with my first child. I was facing life in prison.”
 
Ultimately, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released after seven.
 
“I made a vow to leave prison a better person than when I entered,” Monday says. “That’s not to say I was a bad person, but sometimes good people make bad choices.”
 

Becoming the Solution

 
While in prison, Monday kept busy earning a college certificate in business administration. She took 1,500 hours of cosmetology courses.
 
But her mind kept drifting back to Tulsa where she spent childhood summers at family gatherings and attending the historic Vernon AME Church with her grandmother.
 
She couldn’t stop thinking about north Tulsa and the painful legacy left by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Her heart told her to go home to Tulsa when she was released.
 
“I came home with a burning desire to make a difference,” Monday says. “This is my birthplace. I wasn’t raised here but I came home to my roots.”
 
It was only natural for her to transfer to OSU-Tulsa after attending Tulsa Community College.
 
“I didn’t want to leave Tulsa to go to OSU. I wanted to be home,” Monday says. “I love OSU-Tulsa. It’s like family. I give credit to the faculty and staff for making this place seem like home.”
 

Changing Laws

 
Monday is a member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. She recently organized the organization’s annual meeting in Tulsa.
 
As a member, she learned how to work with state lawmakers in crafting legislation to improve prison conditions for women.
 
One bill was inspired by other women’s experience of giving birth in prison, all alone and shackled to the bed. The ‘anti-shackling bill’ bans the practice and allows women to have a family member with them for comfort. It was signed into law by the governor and took effect last year.
 
“I absorbed the pain of other women who had endured that experience to be the voice for the voiceless,” she says.
 
Monday is proud of the fact that there are no costs associated with the legislation.
 
“It doesn’t cost anything to treat incarcerated women with dignity and humanity,” she says.
 
Another bill in the works would provide judges more discretion in sentencing primary caregivers in an effort to reduce the harm to their children. Community-based programs would be an option under the sentencing law to keep families intact.
 
Around 85 percent of incarcerated females are the primary caregiver for their children, so the bill mostly affects women.
 
“I left my child at age 6 months and got him back at 8 years old,” Monday says. “He’s 13 now and he still feels the effects of our separation.”
 

Root Causes

 
Not only is Monday committed to writing legislation and providing support for women after they leave prison, she realizes the root causes of female incarceration must be addressed.
 
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, drug offenses have driven female incarceration rates higher, with devastating effects on women who pose little threat to public safety.
 
Women generally use drugs to self-medicate in response to victimization and trauma. One academic study found that 98 percent of women in jails had been exposed to trauma during their lifetime and 74 percent had drug or alcohol problems.
 
“After leaving prison, there are few opportunities to begin a journey of healing that will keep you sober,” she says. “So when you come home and you don’t have those tools, what do you do? You continue the cycle.”
 
Monday is grateful she was able to break that cycle in her life. And she is committed to helping other women do the same.
 
“My story is surreal. I went from being known for breaking laws and now I’m known for making laws,” she says. “The message is, no matter what you’ve done, you are not defined by your past. We are all people and our lives matter.”

 

D'Marria Monday (right) and fellow OSU-Tulsa student Jacquelyn Jackson in 2017 -- one year before she would graduate and form Block Builderz.
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Media Contact: Jamie Edford | 918-594-8024 | jamie.m.edford@okstate.edu