Michael Wyke/Tulsa World
When Teresa Birchett fills out a job application, there is always a box to check that makes her nervous.
She knows it is a red flag for employers. She wants to be honest. She just asks for a chance.
But that box asking about past criminal convictions or arrests seems to haunt her job search.
“I completed drug treatment,” she said. “Without it, I wouldn’t be doing so well. But I write ‘will explain’ so I can tell them what I’ve done since then.”
Birchett, 49, is among the 8.5 percent of all Oklahomans who have a felony conviction.
She is living in Center Point, a transitional living center contracted with the state Department of Corrections for inmates with substance abuse problems.
Birchett is serving an 11-year sentence for Tulsa County convictions on possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. She has prior convictions of drug possession, possessing a stolen credit card and receiving cash or property with a stolen credit card.
As a landscaper, Birchett had access to chemicals involved in making methamphetamine, which was her addiction.
“I started doing meth after legal diet drugs, and life went downhill fast,” Birchett said. “After I started doing meth, people involved with making meth approached me about getting chemicals. I thought it was an easy way to get meth.”
After a drug possession conviction in 2001, she received a suspended sentence, got sober and had a baby. She relapsed in 2007 and was sent to prison. Her son is living with a grandmother.
“After my first conviction, I lost my chemical license and found work waitressing,” Birchett said. “I was able to scrape by with my son until I relapsed. Now, I’m getting older and coming out of prison, and it’s harder.”
Through the Prisoner Reentry Initiative—a federal program that gives employers financial incentives to hire former prisoners who have received job training—Birchett is now working at a call center doing customer satisfaction surveys.
“It’s the first kind of job like this I’ve had,” she said. “I’m grateful to have a job.”
‘TRYING TO START OVER’
Being open to change is the key to landing a job as a former inmate, said Debbie Davis, released from prison in September after serving about seven years of a 28-year sentence on embezzlement charges.
“Being trainable is one of the best attributes any person can have in any field,” Davis said.
Davis, 54, pleaded guilty in Oklahoma County in 2003 for taking money from two employers. She had been convicted of felony theft in February 1996 in Sedgwick County, Kansas, and received two years probation for stealing $277,000.
In Oklahoma County, Davis admitted to forging checks totaling $12,347 at an employer’s business and was charged with taking $11,950 at a subsequent employer.
“The majority of money I never kept but gave away,” Davis said.
While in Kansas, Davis said the embezzling began right after the death of her grandmother. She describes the high of getting the money as a type of addiction.
When she pleaded guilty to the first charges, part of the agreement was to pay $500 a month in restitution and fines.
“I set that amount, thinking I could pay it,” she said. “So, I’m trying to start over, find a job and couldn’t make the restitution. I felt trapped, ashamed and began to embezzle again. … I believed I would somehow get out of it and stop. It was a fantasy, and the amounts kept getting bigger. I did not receive a life change until prison.”
In prison, she went through a divorce, started counseling, lost 60 pounds and got involved as a tutor and participant in the education courses.
“I decided I was tired of being a victim and in situations that are crippling,” she said. “That’s when I looked inside and did a self-evaluation. You can’t have a life change unless you are open to it. I have a strong faith in God. I figured he brought me though this, so he must have a plan for me.”
Davis was involved in the Celebrate Recovery program while in prison and became involved with the Southern Hills Baptist Church after her release. She now has housing through a transitional living program and works as a receptionist for Muddy Paws, a program that trains former inmates to groom dogs.
“I love working around people who promote a person’s belief in themselves and their God-given talents,” Davis said.
‘WORKED HARD TO GET HERE’
Rhonda Poteet Bear is among many former inmates who now work with offenders leaving prison to get back on their feet. She said the inter-generational cycle of incarceration is startling.
“There are sometimes, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts in the prisons at one time,” Bear said. “I believe if we can help women then we can help save their children. It is clear in America we have a drug problem. People usually use drugs and alcohol to escape their current feelings, or they are bored or feeling hopeless.”
Bear’s prison record starts in 1998 with convictions for drug possession, burglary, assault on a police officer and a bogus check. She was 34, divorced with three children, in college working toward a social work degree and in a drug recovery program.
“I had been an addict for along time and made poor choices but was getting my life back on track,” she said. “I relapsed on meth. That relapse caused me to lose custody of my children for a second time and down a path of felony convictions, probation, probation violations and then prison.”
In 2001, a Sequoyah County judge sentenced her to 10 years for three drug possession charges with a stipulation that if she completed a drug treatment program while incarcerated, he would suspend the remainder of her sentence.
She finished the program in a year and entered Exodus House in Tulsa after release. Exodus House is a transitional living program for former inmates operated as a ministry by the United Methodist Church.
“I always make the wrong decision, so I thought why not do something different,” she said. “They helped me get my kids back, my life back, and I’m now running a program for former inmates.”
Bear said her children—now 19, 21 and 24—were at risk of going into foster care. She said it took at least five years after her release to regain some trust. She has been employed by a Tulsa manufacturing company for more than eight years.
“God brought my kids back to me and has healed and restored the relationship,” Bear said. “We are really close, and we worked hard to get here.”
With support from the First Baptist Church in Claremore and an anonymous donor, she and her husband opened His House in Rogers County in May 2008. The program is a transitional living program for people recently released from prison.
“I want to see women come out of prison, restore their lives and get their kids,” Bear said. “If moms don’t come back and make a difference in their kids’ lives, our kids won’t survive it. I want to see children restored to their moms and dads.”