An Oklahoma mother who had been imprisoned for 15 years for failing to report to authorities that her boyfriend was abusing her children was freed from custody on Friday.
Tondalao Hall was sentenced in 2006 to 30 years in prison under Oklahoma’s “failure to protect” law after her then-boyfriend, Robert Braxton Jr., abused two of their children so severely, at least one had multiple broken bones, according to Hall’s attorney, Megan Lambert of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. Hall had already been in jail for two years when she received her sentence.
Braxton, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to abusing the children, but was given no additional time behind bars: He received a 10-year suspended sentence and was released on probation after having served his two years in jail, Lambert said.
The discrepancy between the two punishments prompted widespread outrage and put a spotlight on Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate, which is the highest in the country. The state also has the highest rate of female imprisonment.
Hall was released just after 11 a.m. local time.
“She is just thrilled to be able to get back to her family. I am relieved that we finally got some justice for her, but at the same time, it’s a little bittersweet because today is coming 15 years too late,” Lambert told NBC News on Friday morning ahead of Hall’s release. “And at the same time, she’s still leaving behind countless other women who are still incarcerated on failure to protect charges.”
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The state’s incarceration ranking is one many Oklahoma officials are eager to shed. On Monday, more than 400 inmates across the state were released from prison in what the governor said was the largest prisoner commutation in U.S. history. The inmates had been sentenced for drug possession or other nonviolent crimes.
Hall got a break last month when the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board unanimously voted to commute her sentence. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt granted the request on Thursday, Lambert said.
But the years-long journey Hall has gone through to get to this point is “representative of an institutional misunderstanding of domestic violence,” Lambert said.
While every state has laws to protect children, only six have “failure to protect” laws or similar child abuse statutes that carry a possible life sentence for parents who don’t report abuse, according to the Associated Press.
Oklahoma’s law makes no exception for parents who stay silent out of fear for their own safety — which Lambert said was the case in Hall’s situation. In addition to choking and punching their young children, Lambert said, Braxton beat and psychologically abused Hall.
“What should have been a mitigating factor, the fear that she was feeling of her abuser, was specifically used to enhance her sentence.”
“What should have been a mitigating factor, the fear that she was feeling of her abuser, was specifically used to enhance her sentence,” Lambert said.
Hall was just 19 when she was arrested. While the child abuse charges against her were dropped, she still pleaded guilty to enabling child abuse.
Her children, who were raised by Hall’s cousin, are now 19, 17 and 15. Lambert said they are “really excited to be able to build a relationship with their mother for the first time in their lives.”
While she was imprisoned, Hall maintained a relationship with her children and became a licensed cosmetologist.
When the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board was reviewing last month whether to commute Hall’s sentence, Hall told the board, “I’ve worked really hard to be the woman my children need me to be,” according to NBC affiliate KFOR in Oklahoma.
In a statement through the ACLU of Oklahoma released on Thursday, Hall thanked her supporters.
“First and foremost, I want to thank God for making a way and for keeping me safe and sane during this season of my life,” she said. “Secondly, for all the people God has placed in my life, my children and my family for sticking by me. Time and space cannot accommodate the list of people who have loved, helped, and supported me through all of this.”