Last year, Ashley Hale followed an Oklahoma City sidewalk to an office building, dressed her best to start a new job. At her feet, she saw words carved into the cement—company values like integrity that guided Ashley's own life.
Not long before, she sat behind prison walls as her life was falling apart.
LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO BELONG
For much of her young life, Ashley sought joy in materialism. From an early age, she got what she wanted—if the things she wished for could be bought. Since her single mother made good money, they never asked others for help. But money couldn't buy everything.
Like many teens, Ashley dealt with feelings of insecurity and wished to fit in at school. Though she seemed outgoing and athletic, she feared failure and never tried out for sports. "The other side of that was, well, I can go to the games, and I can party," Ashley remembers.
Parties became an easy place for her to belong. When she dabbled in alcohol, pot, and cocaine, Ashley told herself she could stop whenever she wanted. But by college, she was trying ecstasy and meth. Being high made her feel numb and carefree. As Ashley sank deeper into addiction, she left her college dorm to live in a house alone off-campus. She started selling drugs for extra cash. She threw house parties, so she'd never be lonely.
At age 21, Ashley was arrested for the first time. She spent six months in a prison-style boot camp, then moved to Arizona. She stayed clean for a few years and even attended cosmetology school. But she returned to Oklahoma and the party scene there, and by her late 20s, Ashley was a single mother with a full-time job and a full-time addiction.
Being high made Ashley feel numb and carefree. As she sank deeper into addiction ... She started selling drugs for extra cash. She threw house parties, so she'd never be lonely.
Ashley struggled when her son was diagnosed with a developmental disorder. She used meth to mute her pain and stay awake as she researched her son’s condition late into the night. "I thought that was how I was going to survive," says Ashley. "It just became a way of life."
That way of life led Ashley to a short stint in rehab and, finally, to prison on a 10-year sentence.
Broken and tired, Ashley checked in to a substance abuse treatment program in prison to begin her recovery. But soon she wanted more. Ashley's cellmate knew Tammy Franklin, a Prison Fellowship staff member who served as the manager of Prison Fellowship Academy®, a yearlong life transformation program. Tammy had previously been incarcerated at the same facility as Ashley, before being released and turning her life around. Ashley wondered if the same radical renewal was possible for her, too.
Ashley enrolled in the Academy and discovered a place to belong. Caring staff and volunteers guided her through a yearlong journey to develop biblically based values like community, integrity, and responsibility. With curriculum like Celebrate Recovery, she learned to process difficult emotions and to heal from past hurts.
"That was the first time that I had been told that my feelings are normal," Ashley says of her time in the Academy. "It's OK to have them and then process whatever it is, and then move forward. A lot of healing came from just that."
'That was the first time that I had been told that my feelings are normal. It's OK to have them and then process whatever it is, and then move forward. A lot of healing came from just that.'
BACK TO BASICS
In the Academy, Ashley also rediscovered her faith in Jesus, in part through the Alpha study included in the Academy curriculum. Alpha introduces participants to the basics of the Christian faith, which Ashley grew up believing—but only as a "free ticket to sin" and live however she wanted. "I thought if I was saved, how I lived didn’t matter, because I was going to heaven no matter what," Ashley says. "But I learned that God wants a relationship with us."
During her time in the Academy, Ashley also attended Oklahoma's first Prison Fellowship Hope Event™ for women at Kate Barnard Correctional Center in July 2019. Led by caring volunteers, musicians, and speakers, the event invited participants into worship, fellowship, and prayer, with a presentation of the Gospel.
From the yard to her cell, Ashley practiced living in healthy community without fear of failure, knowing that Jesus loved her unconditionally.
"The Academy changed my life more than any prison stay, any bootcamp, any rehab," says Ashley. "That's been the best thing that could have happened to me."
'The Academy changed my life more than any prison stay, any bootcamp, any rehab. That's been the best thing that could have happened to me.'
After three and a half years, Ashley was released. A Prison Fellowship® volunteer picked her up and brought her new clothes for going home.
Ashley moved into Hope House, a transitional home for women in Oklahoma City, where she spent her first several months as a free woman. Right away, she got involved with Bible studies and found a church community.
Reentry wasn't easy. Ashley juggled work, school, serving the community, and being a mom, all while learning to adjust to society again. She had to set healthy boundaries with family and friends and commit to her sobriety.
In February 2021, Ashley was baptized at her church as a public expression of her faith in Jesus. Today she is in a program to become a licensed peer recovery support specialist. Her relationship with her now 19-year-old son is growing stronger, and she is grateful for their support system that helps him thrive. She hopes to someday be cleared to return to prison as a Prison Fellowship volunteer to help others—especially other women who struggle to ask for help like she did. Even in tough times, Ashley says she finds purpose in serving others freely with the love of Christ.
In a way, Ashley is still the woman who gets what she wants. But now, what she wants has radically changed.
"Because I was a perfectionist, I always wanted to be the better mom, the better this or that—to be better than you," says Ashley. "But knowing God was going to meet me right where I was … I knew nobody else's opinion mattered. Before, I would ask, 'Am I pretty enough? Am I smart enough? Am I doing enough?' And for anybody else that's wondering, the answer is yes. Because that’s what God says."
'Before, I would ask, 'Am I pretty enough? Am I smart enough? Am I doing enough?' And for anybody else that's wondering, the answer is yes. Because that's what God says.'