When I was a young police officer, still in training, I remember interacting with a man experiencing homelessness loitering around a government building in the middle of the night. When I asked this man for identification, he gave me a state prison ID card. My Training Officer told me to be extra careful with guys carrying state prison IDs. The assumption was that they had been in prison and therefore were more dangerous. That prejudice stayed with me for many years. After years of working for the Department of Corrections and helping many Oklahomans housed in state prisons return to their communities, I realize that stigma is a real barrier for thousands of Oklahomans returning home from prison each year. When you have Oklahomans returning home every day with nothing more than an inmate ID card as their only means of identification those prejudices shape how the communities see them. The stigma impacts how future employers or landlords make instant judgments against them. With Oklahoma’s recent strides to improve reentry through the Sarah Stitt Act and state lawmakers' efforts toward a pilot reentry program, now is the prime opportunity to keep pushing forward and to truly invest in reentry.
Incarcerated Oklahomans have limited access to reentry resources. The individual primarily responsible for creating a discharge plan is called a correctional case manager. This discharge planning is supposed to begin one year prior to release, and each case manager can have over a hundred inmates assigned to their caseload. Depending on the security level, case managers could have multiple individuals discharged per week or month. Additionally, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections employs only five Reentry Coordinators who are each responsible for four facilities each, with most state prison facilities housing over 1000 inmates. Quite simply, there are a lot of individuals in need and a lack of staff and funds to serve these needs.
There have been efforts to increase staffing by improving pay for correctional security officers and nurses. While this was much needed for recruitment and retention, it created an unexpected problem. Where security officers previously saw case management as a promotion, this raise caused case managers to return to security officer positions where they could make more money and earn overtime.
Sarah Stitt Act and other reforms need further investment
To encourage reentry services, in 2021 Oklahoma policymakers passed the Sarah Stitt Act. The intention was that all returning Oklahomans are guaranteed an identification card or driver’s license, a copy of their vocational training, a copy of their work record while incarcerated, a certified birth certificate, social security card, a resume including any trade while incarcerated and their proficiency, and a mock interview. Unfortunately, this was all mandated without additional funding, leaving the Department of Corrections scrambling to comply. Despite this, the Department of Corrections has been able to improve birth certificate and ID access as well as access to job fairs and transitional classes.
The Department of Public Safety provided five machines to satisfy the identification requirements and has continued to promise more. However, with over 20 facilities at varying security levels, there are several barriers to completing this task.
Now that Service Oklahoma has taken over Oklahoma’s driver's license and ID system, there is an opportunity for growth. Since all agencies fall under the umbrella of the state there is no reason the agencies can’t collaborate for solutions. Service Oklahoma should be the lead on identification. There is no reason that every single facility cannot collect the pertinent data needed to complete the identification and forward it to Service Oklahoma to create the identification. Currently, they already print the identification and mail it to DOC. This would eliminate the need for the machines at correctional facilities.
Community partnerships will strengthen reentry
Next, Oklahoma should create an evolving network of organizations to assist Oklahomans who are returning to their communities. The responsibility should not be entirely on those discharging to find housing, employment, or social services. There are too many resources currently being underutilized by the state. An evolving network of resources on the department’s intranet would allow easy search based on the discharge location, helping Correctional Case Managers find easy resources for their caseload allowing their process to be simplified and therefore encourages compliance.
Many organizations provide resume and interview assistance to people all over Oklahoma. Organizations like the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) - a nonprofit organization that supports reentry services for Oklahomans returning from incarceration - have mastered the art of getting those justice-involved prepared and reliably employed. A partnership with such organizations would alleviate the burden on the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to provide resume and interview assistance from staff who are already overburdened and left to those who have made it their mission to lift up justice-involved. Organizations like CEO have already been participating in Reentry Resource Fairs and these groups work frequently with Probation and Parole to assist in employment skills for those under supervision. State leaders should help the Department of Corrections develop a more coordinated plan for these community partnerships.
The state of Oklahoma has a missed opportunity in working with those with lived experience. Working with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform has given me the opportunity to work with several individuals who have served time in Oklahoma’s prison system. Their experiences are varied, but one theme is the feeling that they were kicked out of prison without the proper tools to succeed. For those lucky enough to have higher education or a family and friend network to help them out, discharge is still a struggle. The psychological toll can be extensive and without proper resources, successful reentry can be impossible. Allowing these people to provide feedback or even participate in improving the reentry process would be invaluable for all parties.
A new beginning
The majority of incarcerated Oklahomans will return to our communities. These people are your family, your neighbors, or purely everyday people who have paid for their crime and now deserve a chance to move on. Ensuring returning Oklahomans have a secure place to live and employment they feel good about does not deter anyone else’s happiness. In fact, stable employment and housing lower recidivism rates profoundly. This is an issue that every Oklahoman should care about.
Oklahoma’s “tough on crime” attitude is standing in the way of improving our reentry processes. A sentiment I hear a lot is “Nobody helped me, why should I help them.” Simply put, everyone’s life experiences are different, and seeing people through a single lens is a disservice. When people exit our prisons, where they are literal property of the state, it is in our best interest as a community to ensure a secure place to live, employment that increases self-esteem, and social services to lift up any areas that may be falling. Giving people a second chance at life ensures our tax dollars aren’t being spent to incarcerate them, which could prevent future generations from the same fate, and that they are contributing to our state's economy.