Groups Serve as Havens for Ex-Offenders

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Oklahoma City's Exodus House is an organization which helps former inmates reintegrate into society.

M. Scott Carter / Oklahoma Watch

Oklahoma City’s Exodus House is an organization which helps former inmates reintegrate into society.

In a modest neighborhood less than a mile west of the Oklahoma State Capitol, about a dozen former prison inmates huddle around a well-used conference table trying to rebuild their lives.

The former inmates are participants in Exodus House, a non-profit that helps them get jobs, find homes and overcome their past.

Funded in part by the United Methodist Foundation, Exodus House in Oklahoma City has 12 apartments in what was once a multi-unit apartment building. An Exodus House in Tulsa has 10 rooms.

Inmates apply to the program during the process of being released. If accepted, they can get treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. Rent is kept affordable so former inmates can save money to pay fines and fees assessed as part of their prison sentence and other costs.

The Rev. Steve Byrd, director of the Oklahoma City Exodus House, said the biggest obstacle for most inmates in his program is substance addiction.

“Most of our residents who come out of prison have never had any significant drug treatment,” he said.

Adam Leathers, director of Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries for the United Methodist Church, said Exodus House works to help ex-inmates find the proper resources and treatments for their addiction and reintegrate into society. He said Exodus House tries to provide a recovery program tailored to each participant.

“They received $50 and a bus ticket when they got out. A lot of them didn’t have a long-term place to go. A lot of them didn’t have a short term place to go,” Leathers said.

Exodus House records show 197 former inmates have participated in the Oklahoma City program since 2008; 81 completed the program, 43 relapsed and 25 returned to prison. Another 50 had their participation extended. In Tulsa, about 50 ex-prisoners graduated from the program from 2002 to 2011.

“We want to see people become productive again,” said Robin Wertz, an ex-inmate who is now a case manager at the Oklahoma City Exodus House. “We want to see them rebuild their lives.”

Not far away, near North Oklahoma Avenue and 13th Street, The Employment and Education Ministry has a similar goal. Founded in 1987, TEEM offers education, job placement and social services to ex-inmates.

TEEM’s executive director, former Oklahoma house speaker Kris Steele, said many of the offenders his agency helps needed drug treatment before incarceration, and they still need it after release.

Steele said the typical former offender faces enormous fees and fines, doesn’t have a driver’s license and must deal with the stigma of being an ex-convict.

TEEM’s efforts focus on drug and alcohol treatment, employment training and job placement. Steele said the agency helps ex-offenders secure transportation, identification, housing and even appropriate clothing.

Steele said Oklahoma has harsh drug laws that drive the state’s high incarceration rates and that don’t address the root problems.

“We incarcerate people in Oklahoma for things that no other state incarcerates for,” Steele said, citing the fact that state ranks first in incarceration of women.
The reality, Steele said, is that state policy makes it difficult for ex-offenders to become productive members of the community.

“We have dug the hole so deep as far as the punishment is concerned that … it’s nearly impossible for them to become a contributing, productive member of our community,” he said.

Like Steele, Leathers said his organization’s efforts to steer ex-inmates into a productive life benefits the entire state, not just the offender.

“It’s not just about being nice,” Leathers said. “It’s about (the former offender) being a functional member of society.”

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