March 6, 2011

Punishments Linger after Prison Sentence

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Emma Battle, who lives in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, has been incarcerated four times and is finally getting her life back on track.

Adam Wisneski/Tulsa World

Emma Battle, who lives in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, has been incarcerated four times and is finally getting her life back on track.

Most women who leave prison in Oklahoma are given $50 and a bus ticket.Statistics show there’s a good chance most won’t be going back to prison any time soon, if ever.

Just 14.4 percent of the women released from prison in 2007 returned within three years, according to Oklahoma Department of Corrections statistics.

To break it down another way: Of the 1,271 female offenders who were released from Oklahoma Department of Corrections custody in fiscal 2010, 183 of them will be back behind bars if current recidivism rates prove true.

Re-arrest rates of former inmates as tracked by another state agency show higher encounters with law enforcement after release.

About 54 percent of inmates released directly into the community after serving their sentences are re-arrested, according to a 2008 report from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

The re-arrest rate for those completing a successful probation is about 38 percent, and drug court graduates have a re-arrest rate of about 24 percent.

Even those who never return to incarceration face a much different life, filled with new challenges.

To put it in human terms, consider this: Two years after walking out of prison, at least one woman is still wearing undergarments she was issued while in prison.

Chris Steltzlen, who is jobless and disabled, said money has been so tight that buying new undergarments just hasn’t been a priority. New clothes, when she can afford them, come from the clearance rack.

Steltzlen said she is considering volunteering her time with a social service agency until she can find work.

“I can’t give up because somebody is going to give me a chance,” Steltzlen said.

‘A rough ride’

At 54

percent of inmates released directly into the community after serving their sentences are re-arrested, according to a 2008 report from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

The re-arrest rate for those completing a successful probation is about 38 percent, and drug court graduates have a re-arrest rate of about 24 percent.

Even those who never return to incarceration face a much different life, filled with new challenges.

To put it in human terms, consider this: Two years after walking out of prison, at least one woman is still wearing undergarments she was issued while in prison.

Chris Steltzlen, who is jobless and disabled, said money has been so tight that buying new undergarments just hasn’t been a priority. New clothes, when she can afford them, come from the clearance rack.

Steltzlen said she is considering volunteering her time with a social service agency until she can find work.

“I can’t give up because somebody is going to give me a chance,” Steltzlen said.

‘A ROUGH RIDE’

At 54, Emma Battle has been to prison four times on drug-related charges. She said this is the most committed she has been to kicking her drug habit.

Released from prison in July 2009, Battle has four years of parole left to serve.

“I don’t want to OD on drugs or die in prison,” Battle said.

Challenges faced by Steltzlen and Battle are typical of those released from prison.A 2008 Oklahoma legislative report cited a long list of obstacles to felons successfully reintegrating into society.

The report, by the Reentry Policy Council, grouped the problems faced by offenders upon release into broad categories: housing, employment, transportation, financial and family, and “basic life issues.”

A place to live is one of the first challenges an offender faces, the report states.For some offenders, publicly subsidized housing is not a viable option.

The Tulsa Housing Authority may deny an applicant for engaging in drug-related criminal activity or violent criminal activity that has occurred within the past three years, according to Terry Cole, Tulsa Housing Authority vice president of assisted housing.

The council’s report also cited a state law that “made it all but impossible to provide independent transitional living facilities for re-entering offenders.” The 2005 state law prohibits the location of transitional living facilities within 2,500 feet from a residential neighborhood or a school.

Battle considers herself fortunate to have found a place to live the last two times she was released from prison.

When she was released from prison in 2001 after serving time for drug-related crimes, she moved into a faith-based, residential center in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, designed to help her transition to a world without drugs.

But six years after her release, she relapsed and was returned to prison on a probation violation.

“I was angry I let my family and loved ones down,” Battle said of her return to prison in 2007.

During her last stint in prison, Battle tried something a little different.

“In prison I started going to the faith-based meetings and that was it,” Battle said, describing her approach to re-entering society.

Since getting out of prison in 2009, she has moved to a different Sapulpa living facility designed for women who have been released from prison with a history of substance abuse.

“I’m safe here,” Battle said of her new home in Sapulpa.

Battle said she plans to study drug counseling at Tulsa Community College and is trying to reconnect with her adult children.

“I didn’t raise my kids; my mother raised my children,” Battle said.

She also said she wants to be there for her 10-year-old grandson and enjoys watching him play in school basketball games.

This is the longest she has been sober in her adult life.

“I’m just for once following the rules,” Battle said. “It’s been a rough ride.”

RECIDIVISM MISLEADING

Despite the struggles many face in avoiding a return to prison, Oklahoma’s recidivism rates as reported by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections are the lowest in the region.

Colorado saw 48 percent of its females offenders returned to prison after three years. In Texas, 21 percent of female felons returned to prison within three years, according to Department of Corrections reports.

But Oklahoma’s low recidivism rate may not be a statistic to be proud of, according to some prison experts.

“Oklahoma’s female recidivism rate is so low because the women we are incarcerating do not belong there in the first place,” said Juanita Ortiz, professor in the criminal justice department at University of Illinois-Springfield.

Slightly more than 50 percent of women are in Oklahoma prisons for low-level, nonviolent offenses such as drug and property offenses.

“They are not hardened criminals, and other states would not incarcerate them,” said Ortiz, who completed her doctorate degree at the University of Oklahoma, completing a dissertation examining the state’s female recidivism rates.

For those who are imprisoned and subsequently released, finding employment is not that difficult a job for many felons, according to a Reentry Policy Council report.

“Menial and dead-end jobs are easy to obtain,” according to the report. “Rising above subsistence is the challenge.”

Still, felons face a list of hurdles to finding a job. Many jobs are off-limits either by law or by practice.

When Steltzlen goes job hunting, the 41-year-old Tulsan makes it a habit to always ask an employer early on if they hire felons who are also disabled.

Steltzlen has a long history of drug use. Her first arrest was on her 18th birthday, a misdemeanor marijuana charge.

She said she continued dealing and doing drugs until 2000, when she was arrested after firing a gun into the air following a dispute with sanitation workers.

In retrospect, carrying a loaded gun while using methamphetamine probably wasn’t the best idea, Steltzlen said.

The incident sent her to prison for 120 days. She credits getting a short prison term with her family hiring a prominent private attorney.

She said the 120 day sentence didn’t serve to dissuade her from the drug scene.Four years after her prison stint, Steltzlen was arrested again after selling $25 in cocaine to an undercover cop.

This time her family wasn’t there to catch her.

The public defender assigned to her case said the district attorney was offering her a prison sentence ranging from 20 years to life. She turned it down. The next offer, an 8-year-term, was turned down, but it was resubmitted and finally accepted by Steltzlen.

Today, Steltzlen lives on a $937 a month income that she receives from Social Security for her disability. She has multiple health issues: bi-polar disorder, seizures and a bad back.

But she says she is determined to travel the right path in her life now. She pays her father $200 a month in rent for the home she shares with him.

After paying her medication co-payments, which run $150 to $200 per month, she’s not left with much.

Before Steltzlen was sent to prison, she was one credit away from an associate’s degree in information management at Tulsa Community College. But a lot happened in computing technology in the four-plus years she was in prison.

She believes it would be a waste of time now to complete studies in computers because she doubts any company in that field would hire a felon.

Most trade school options are out, too, because Oklahoma won’t issue state licenses to felons in many cases, Steltzlen said.

Even the local dollar-type discount store is not an option because the stores don’t hire felons until they’ve been out at least 10 years, she said.

OTHERS CAN FIND HELP

Although they may be hard to find, there are job opportunities for felons.Various nonprofits and faith-based groups offer job training and search tools for people coming out of prison.

Goodwill Industries of Tulsa is a vendor of the Prisoner Reentry Initiative, a U.S. Department of Labor grant administered by the Community Service Council.

The initiative is to cut down on people re-offending by helping them find and maintain jobs. It also provides incentives to employers who will hire people participating in the program.

Goodwill Industries case manager Joshua Firor said the manufacturing and food service industries are the most likely areas to give people with felony convictions a job.

Fields including health, nursing, child care and some other state-licensed regulated areas have prohibitions on employment.

“It’s much harder to place someone with a record,” Firor said. “I can have someone who is completely qualified for a job and can perform in that job at or better than another person, but they won’t get it solely because of the felony.”

The Reentry Policy Council, which was composed of legislators, corrections officials and lay people, heard testimony from several groups in 2008 regarding the ability of offenders to obtain occupational licensing.

The council found that only in a few instances was a felony record was an automatic bar to obtaining a license.

“It would appear that the most common barrier felons face in obtaining an occupational license is the pervasive negative connotation a felony conviction provides,” according to the council’s report.

State licensing procedures should be reviewed to eliminate barriers to employment that are unrelated to the conduct underlying the conviction, the report recommended.

In the training, former felons are given the criminal histories employers will be able to find online and given tips on how to address it, Firor said.

“We talk to them about how to speak about it positively and honestly because questions will come up,” Firor said. “We counsel them on appearance and dress and how to handle themselves in an interview. We do that for all our clients, but it is especially important for a person who has been incarcerated.”

OPTIONS FOR CHANGE

The Prisoner Reentry Initiative in Tulsa includes 26 companies participating in the subsidy incentive, employing 65 people. Since 2009, about 277 people have been served and 75 percent found jobs before exiting the program, according to the Community Service Council.

At least 20 percent of clients in the Goodwill job training programs have a felony record, said Sabrina Ware, TulsaWorks coordinator. Of those, about 55 people are enrolled in the Prison Reentry Initiative.

“They are not a DOC number; they have a name,” Ware said. “We treat them with respect they may not have received before. It’s a whole new world for them.”

The issue of high female incarceration rates is nothing new in Oklahoma. The state ranks first in the nation in the number of women in prison per capita.

In recent years, various task forces, blue ribbon commissions and legislative committees have all studied the matter and issued reports calling attention to problems and suggesting solutions.

But Pam Richardson is optimistic that things are about to change.

“There are multiple reasons why it’s important to us now,” said Richardson, executive director at the Resonance Center for Women, a Tulsa nonprofit agency that provides re-entry support services to women.

“We’ve got to become very smart on crime because the cost to our state is enormous,” Richardson said. “The alternatives are less expensive. They disrupt the families less, keep families together, and it will be less costly for us in the long run.”

Curtis Killman, Tulsa World staff writer, contributed to this story