For many convicted felons leaving Oklahoma prisons, repaying their debt to society means paying down a mountain of actual debt from court costs, fines and fees.
As OPMX’s Kate Carlton Greer reports in the final part of a collaboration between KOSU and Oklahoma Watch’s called Prisoners of Debt, keeping former inmates from re-offending and returning to prison often depends on help available when they’re released.
Men and women clutch binders and sack lunches as they shuffle into a cafeteria and catch up before the day begins.
They’re all participants at TEEM, The Employment and Education Ministry, in Oklahoma City. It’s a non-violent prisoner re-entry program that helps offenders find jobs and get plugged back into society.
Some are on probation, but many, like Brandon Randall, who was most recently convicted in 2012 for the unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, are still in halfway houses.
Offenders in all stages of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system struggle with debt.
“As far as my court costs and fines, I think I'm at a total of about $14,000."
That tab has been building for years. Randall’s been in and out of prison since he was 18. He’s 36 now.
“From the things I was doing in the past to make money, that situation wouldn't bother me. But now that I'm trying to do the right thing and make the right steps for myself, it's kind of shaky. I'm nervous.”
Despite Randall’s history and his worry, he’s lucky. He has a case manager at TEEM who helps with the paperwork that come with re-entering society, like getting a drivers license reinstated. Randall takes classes on writing resumes and practices for job interviews.
Even so, TEEM case manager Nichole Lenoir says it’s the accumulation of these little things make offenders like Randall return to crime.
“Every obstacle that you can imagine, they have it times ten. Employment, housing, transportation, a lot of them have fines. They have to get drivers' licenses back. It's just overwhelming.”
Finding a job is one the biggest challenges offenders face when they leave prison, says TEEM’s director Kris Steele. That’s why the organization trains offenders and helps them earn certifications, like Serve-Safe, the food safety certificate required to work in a restaurant.
Steele says the program helps employers who may be hesitant about hiring former prisoners.
“When a person transitions back into society with this stigma and with this felony conviction, and again, we're talking about nonviolent offenders, we've made it so difficult that it's nearly impossible for that person to obtain gainful employment.”
There are other groups that help offenders during the transition to freedom. Exodus House, for example, provides drug and alcohol counseling and very low rent to its participants.
Oklahoma City case manager Robin Wertz helped about 40 offenders last year. That’s better than nothing she says, but roughly 7,000 criminals are released from Oklahoma prisons each year, most of them without any help at all.
“How many people are we missing? And why can't we be working on doing that? Why can't we do that because that's where the difference is. That's where we can help people.”
Wertz says the maze of debt and paperwork facing ex-prisoners is daunting.
Offenders like Brandon Randall often owe money to multiple counties. That’s why TEEM’s Nichole Lenoir says she does everything she can to simplify the process.
“I know the barriers of reentry are just insurmountable sometimes, well, all the time. And without this help, they won't have anything, and they'll be right back in jail.”
She says the goal should be to create tax producers who don't reoffend.
Both Exodus House and TEEM boast recidivism rates far below the state average of 22 percent, but it's not necessarily an easy road.
Brandon Randall will be released from the halfway house at the end of this month, and he’s surprisingly cautious about regaining freedom.
“I'm more -- how should I say this -- I'm anxious to get out, but at the same time it's like, "Man. I've got to have a plan together." That's one of the reasons I'm glad I'm here at TEEM. They’re giving me a chance. To make a long story short, it's a backbone. They meet you halfway."
Randall has been in prison almost half of his life. He’s used to a routine and people telling him what to do.
After past releases, he said he was on his own and ended up back in custody.
Randall says this time is different because a structured program provides a much-needed stepping-stone into life outside bars.
The Oklahoma Public Media Exchange is a partnership between the state’s public broadcasters.