Ray Carter | August 23, 2022
Work touted as crucial need to reform ex-convicts
If officials want the recidivism rate to decline for ex-convicts, Oklahoma must increase opportunities for incarcerated individuals to get job training and encourage more businesses to become “second chance” employers who will hire people with a record, lawmakers were told at a legislative study this week.
“The main objective is getting second-chance employers to give these people a chance,” said Gina Richie, reentry case manager for The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM). “You can train them. You can put them in CareerTech. But if you don’t have anybody that’s going to hire them, they’re going back to crime.”
Richie knows that reality firsthand.
“Back in 1996 I went into incarceration. And when I got out, I found out I was unemployable,” Richie said. “It didn’t matter what my resume said. It didn’t matter what my education said. No employer would give me an opportunity to work. I had three children. I wasn’t able to take care of them, and so I wasn’t able to pay my court costs and fines. So they sent me back for failure to pay court costs and fines.”
Richie said faith-based organizations subsequently helped her gain work skills and trained her to handle job interviews as a person with a criminal record. The second time she was released from prison, Richie was directed to “second chance” employers. She went on to eventually work for the State of Oklahoma at the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and was later hired by TEEM.
The challenge for ex-cons is not simply to obtain employment, but also to obtain a job that will allow them to cover the basic cost of living while simultaneously paying off fines and fees imposed as a part of their prior conviction.
“Nobody can live on $7.25 an hour,” Richie said. “That is not possible, especially when you have children, you have court costs and fines, and you have everything stacked against you.”
Damion Shade, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said about 70 percent of individuals who obtain employment after exiting prison do jobs such as food services and building maintenance.
Shade said those “aren’t bad jobs,” but they won’t cover living expenses and court fines.
“I’ve worked those jobs,” Shade said. “But for people with the financial liabilities of those exiting an incarceral setting, those jobs aren’t enough to keep food on the table.”
State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, said the fines-and-fees issue often compounds and overwhelms former prisoners.
“They’re stacking misdemeanor case upon misdemeanor case upon misdemeanor case, and then they’re getting D.A. (district attorney) probation, D.A. probation, D.A. probation, and they’re getting all these fines and that kind of stuff,” Humphrey said.
He said in those situations it soon “becomes an impossibility to pay all those court costs and fines,” and people quit trying.
Lawmakers discussed ways to increase job training opportunities for those in prison as part of a study requested by state Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond.
The issue hit close to home for state Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City.
Turner’s father “wasn’t able to get a stable job after his bout with the criminal legal system until maybe a decade after being released,” the lawmaker recalled.
Jessie Wiese, vice president of program design and evaluation at Prison Fellowship, also understood the issue from multiple viewpoints.
“I was 21 years old when I robbed a bank at gunpoint,” Wiese said. “I was sentenced to serve 15 years in Iowa’s correctional system. There can sometimes be few helpful hands reaching out in prison, yet I was fortunate to find some.”
By the time he neared the end of his prison sentence, Wiese was studying for the law-school admissions test. He went on to graduate magna cum laude, pass the bar exam (twice), and finally became a licensed attorney after a 10-year battle with the state of Virginia.
“The credit for these accomplishments belongs to those along the way who believed that I could make good on my second chance,” Wiese said. “My background experience and current work all deepen my conviction that prison environments should be marked by widespread transformative programming that fosters tangible changes in habits, thinking, and behavior.”
Adam Maxey, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity, noted that 98 percent of individuals currently in Oklahoma prisons are scheduled to be released at some point in the future.
“Individuals in prison are learning something every day,” Maxey said. “They’re either learning how to be a better drug addict or criminal, or you’re learning a skill or something that you’re going to help use to better your life and your situation when you’re going to get out. And so, regardless of if the state has the resources to reach everyone or not, everyone is learning something. So improving the environment and improving what those people are learning and doing to help them when they get out to set them up for success is a huge step forward for the state of Oklahoma. Because there’s dignity in work.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.