Hall’s story has also highlighted the state’s nation-leading incarceration numbers — particularly for women, who are imprisoned there at a rate twice the national average.
“It’s a perfect example of the misunderstanding of domestic violence within Oklahoma’s criminal justice system,” said Megan Lambert, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who represented Hall. “It shows how quick Oklahoma is to incarcerate rather than to understand and support and heal.”
“My heart was full,” said Wazell Hall, Tondalao Hall’s 74-year-old father, who spoke to reporters shortly after his daughter was released. “Couldn’t speak. Cried tears of joy. I feel great. God has blessed me. One thing I asked him to do is to let me see her out of prison before I leave this world and that we might have joy and peace and comfort.”
Her release came a month after Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously to recommend her 30-year sentence for commutation. Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) granted the request Thursday, ending a decade and a half of incarceration.
The case stems from a 2004 hospital visit. Tondalao Hall was 20 years old at the time, and Braxton abused her regularly — choking her, punching her and berating her with verbal attacks, according to court testimony. She suspected that he was violent with her children — their two children and her son from a previous relationship — but Braxton denied it.
She never witnessed the abuse, according to court records, but she took her 20-month-old son to the doctor when his leg swelled. He had a fractured femur and 12 fractured ribs. Her newborn daughter also had a fractured femur, seven fractured ribs and a fractured toe.
Soon after, Hall and Braxton were arrested and charged. In 2006, Hall was sentenced to 30 years after pleading guilty to failing to protect the two children from abuse. Braxton pleaded guilty to the abuse itself and was released on probation after spending two years in jail while the case was adjudicated.
Lambert said there are dozens of women locked up under the failure-to-protect law who have stories “frighteningly similar” to Hall’s — victims of abuse who are punished rather than helped. The charge is a felony that can result in the same sentence as child abuse: life in prison.
In recent years, critics have attempted to reform the law. In the last legislative session, state Rep. Tammy West, a Republican, introduced a bill that would have reduced the maximum penalty for a failure-to-protect charge to four years, but the legislation stalled out in the Oklahoma House.
When Hall walked out of Mabel Bassett Correctional Center near Oklahoma City on Friday morning, other inmates at the women’s facility were in the yard, cheering her on.
The support was joyous, heartening, Lambert said.
“But at the same time, it’s haunting,” she said. “It reminded me of all the other women at Mable Bassett incarcerated under nearly the exact same circumstances.”
But Hall will be back, Lambert said, to help the women she met who were locked up for the same reason she was.
“She feels a certain responsibility to use her experience to help free other women who are wrongfully incarcerated,” she said.
Driving away from the facility, Hall marveled at the city’s skyline, at the shop-lined streets. Beyoncé's “Lemonade” played on the stereo and Hall beamed. It was the first time she heard the album.
“She was taking it all in for the first time in 15 years,” Lambert said.
While in prison, Hall became a licensed cosmetologist, and she said she’s excited to get to work, she told a gaggle of reporters as she left the facility. But first, she’s going to spend time with the kids she hasn’t seen outside a prison in years.
“Blessed to be with my family,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “I just want to be with my family.”