NORMAN — Officials concerned with Oklahoma’s high rates of incarceration announced Thursday an increased effort in the Oklahoma City area to find jobs for convicted felons when they leave prison.
Those released cannot succeed without employment, several officials said. Each year, about 8,000 prisoners in Oklahoma are being released from prison. Nearly 1 in 3 ends up going back to prison.
“It is like a released inmate climbing up mountains, with hands tied in back,” said Kelly Doyle, state director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, which aids prisoners when they are released from prison.
Since last August, two work crews comprised of convicted felons newly released from prison have been working for the city of Moore as the community continues to rebuild following the devastating tornado last May.
The program has worked so well that Moore City Manager Steve Eddy said Thursday that he hopes the city council will allocate funds to continue the partnership.
Eddy said he was skeptical when officials from CEO approached the city of Moore last summer. He checked with Tulsa area city managers who had worked with CEO, and they were “very, very positive” about the program.
“At first, I said, ‘Who are you?” Eddy recalled. Since then, crews comprised of eight to 10 workers have been aiding the city in cleaning debris left in the aftermath of the May 20 tornado.
The crew members are never left alone, he said, and there has been no trouble. Most were in prison for illegal drug use and mental illness, which are classified as non-violent crimes.
A nervous Jamaal Smith, a former inmate, told the gathering that he was lucky when his parole officer recommended he get into the CEO program. Convicted on a drug offense, Smith is now working full time as a prep cook and baker.
The program endeavors to give former inmates work experience in the hope that it will turn into full-time employment.
The CEO program’s Tulsa and Oklahoma City offices are hoping to help an estimated 450 men and women, although that number is minuscule compared to the thousands in prison here. The state rates first in the number of women imprisoned per capita and fourth in incarceration of men.
Former lawmaker Kris Steele and others expressed concern Thursday that Gov. Mary Fallin has chosen to virtually ignore legislation spearheaded by Steele when he was speaker of the House.
The so-called state justice Reinvestment Initiative was signed by the governor, although she also turned down some federal money to aid the program, according to an investigative project by Oklahoma’s two largest newspapers and The Associated Press.
Her general counsel, Steve Mullins, contended that Fallin is fully supportive of the law and it is being implemented. One provision included in the legislation passed last year endeavored to help prisoners get transportation to get to work, once they have jobs.
“Eighty percent of the prisoners released do not have driver’s licenses,” said Pat Viklund, CEO’s Oklahoma City area director.
Some states have approved provisions for provisional licensing for former inmates so they can drive to work.
However, the media investigation contended that Fallin fears a challenge from members of the Tea Party and other right-wing groups. The governor’s race will be among those in this year’s June primary election.
A primary supporter of the re-entry program has been the George Kaiser Family Foundation based in Tulsa.
Executive Director Ken Levit confirmed Thursday that the foundation has provided about $2.1 million to get the program operating in Oklahoma.
However, Levit lauded another entity, the Inasmuch Foundation.
“If it wasn’t for them,” Levit said, the program’s expansion could not have happened.
The Inasmuch Foundation has provided about $200,000 to the effort, said Bob Ross, chief executive officer of the foundation.
Ross said more private prisons are not the answer for Oklahoma.
“There is no incentive for the private prisons to release inmates,” Levit said. The more inmates there are, the more beds will be needed to house them.
Meanwhile, CEO is a program operating in a handful of states initially started in New York City. Its mission is to get jobs for convicted felons who have served their time. Two years ago, the national group set up an office in Tulsa.
Because of their success in Tulsa, CEO officials announced Thursday that a second office is being expanded in the Oklahoma City area.
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