- Associated Press - Monday, September 18, 2017

ENID, Okla. (AP) - Elvis Wright doesn’t know what a normal life looks like.

“A normal life? I still don’t know what that is,” Wright said. “And I’m not looking for that. I’m looking for an extraordinary life, I’m not looking for the same old normal, day-to-day thing. I think it’s the only way I’m going to be able to overcome the past.”

Wright, of Duncan, once belonged to an overcrowded and failing system. Bursting at the seams with inmates, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is underfunded and lacking in program participation, leaving prisoners without a support system to reintroduce them to society. More than 90 percent of those incarcerated will be released back into the community at some point.

Many of those inmates will fall into poverty, and sometimes, revert to the committing crimes that landed them in prison the first time. It’s a vicious cycle of prison and poverty.

Wright was released from prison about eight months ago. He’s working to forge a new life for himself.

When DOC Director Joe Allbaugh started as head of the agency nearly a year ago, he later said he felt like he inherited the doomed Titanic - after it had already struck the iceberg that sunk it.

“We’re in a tough spot,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin. “We have to find a better way to address our incarceration rates, protect the public from those who are truly dangerous, and better ways to address those with mental health and drug issues.”

On Aug. 31, the DOC reported being at more than 109 percent inmate capacity, with a record population of 63,009. Around 35,000 of those are “supervised,” meaning inmates are GPS monitored, under community supervision or on probation or parole. Nearly 27,000 are incarcerated in prisons and halfway houses, and the rest, around 1,600, are in county jail backup.

If no action is taken to reduce the prison population, the Crime and Justice Institute and the Pew Charitable Trusts have projected that DOC will see a 25 percent population increase over the next decade, according to DOC.

If this happens, the department said the cash-strapped state will need three more prisons at an estimated $1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars and $700 million in operating costs to absorb the influx of inmates.

According to its last annual report in 2015, DOC’s seven programs saw minimal participation - anywhere from just 302 to 2,318 participants. Some programs include substance abuse treatment, adult basic education, General Equivalency Diploma (GED) and more.

Then when inmates are released from DOC’s overcrowded facilities, they face a whole other issue - poverty.

Released offenders often don’t have a place to stay, struggle with employment and face crippling legal system fees that are often expected to begin being paid back upon release. Many slip into poverty, leading to a much higher chance of recidivism, or the likelihood of a criminal to re-offend.

The DOC defines recidivism as the percentage of offenders at any given time who return to their custody by the end of a three-year period. By this definition, their reported recidivism rate fluctuates between 21 to 22 percent, according to DOC.

Wright spent seven years in a number of different Oklahoma prisons before spending the last of his time at Enid Community Corrections Center.

Out of all the Oklahoma correctional facilities, few are faring better with inmates and programs than Enid, said ECCC Facility Director Steve Kiss. But the minimum security facility that opened in 1974 is no stranger to the so-called crisis as well

ECCC is a community placement prison filled with a maximum population of 98 inmates. At any one time, ECCC averages around 60 percent of its population being involved in one or more programs, Kiss said.

“Most of the population, once they understand what it is we’re trying to do and the tools we’re trying to give them, they really buy in and they really want to change,” Kiss said.

The prison also had the highest GED graduation rate in DOC for the last several years, Kiss said. ECCC boasts heavy involvement in their other programs, some of which include a substance abuse program, CareerTech programs, Prisoner Public Works Program and the Work Release program, as well as helping inmates find employment.

“Outside of community level (institutions), programs are almost nonexistent. They have some small programs, but for the most part most of the population really isn’t exposed to any programs,” Kiss said. “We are able to do it because we have such a small population. … Between that and the stakeholders, we’re able to put a lot of people in programs,” Kiss said.

Wright said during his time at ECCC before release, he took part in several of these, going through the substance abuse program and some of the CareerTech programs. He was able to get a job at ADM Grain upon release.

Of course, an inmate can go through all of programs offered and still struggle once released.

“Those with the least support face the biggest challenges. These challenges include addiction, mental illness, lack of medical care, lack of suitable housing, lack of a job and a felony record. All of these circumstances can contribute to their post-incarceration poverty condition,” Kiss said.

However Kiss stressed the importance of smaller, community corrections center institutions for inmates on setting them on the right path prior to release.

“There’s a huge need for this security level and the work that we do here … There’s a real importance to having these step-down security levels here to help with the programs. The substance abuse (program), CareerTech training, the GED - all these things that these guys need to be able to overcome poverty when they get out and reduce … the need to reoffend to support themselves,” Kiss said. “Because this is where true corrections comes in. Prisons are warehouses. Essentially, they’re warehouses, and we try to get them down to this level.”

After release, though, ex-inmates need ongoing support. That’s where small programs like Hope Outreach’s transitional housing in Enid can help.

“Without that help, without a healthy environment, the likelihood of them recidivating, going back to prison is pretty high, and the other thing is that we would like to encourage them not to go back to their old environment. Let’s start fresh and build a healthy environment and overcome the barriers with re-entry,” said Rodney Fowler, director for Hope Outreach transitional housing.

Hope Outreach’s transitional housing has two homes in Enid, a men’s home that houses seven to eight men, and a women’s home with four to five women.

Ex-inmates stay in the affordable transition house anywhere from six months to a year, and pay to live there. The longer an individual stays, the likelihood they’ll return to prison decreases dramatically, Fowler said.

“Going through a program like this, if the individual were to stay here for a year, it increases their odds of success by 80 percent,” Fowler said. “Getting into a good program, coming out of incarceration is essential, for someone that doesn’t come into this type of situation … their odds of success are pretty slim.”

The transitional housing offers supervised affordable housing, life-skill training, faith-based counseling and employment support with mandatory church participation.

Wright’s been living in the transitional house in Enid since release.

Throughout much of his time spent since being released, Wright has worked a job at ADM Grain, continues to go through substance abuse courses, helps run the transitional home in a leadership role, does life skill development and more.

Wright said he picked Hope Outreach because he didn’t want to return to where he was prior to incarceration, and to have a place where he’d have a chance for a fresh start, and to change.

Through the transition house, Wright’s been able to have an affordable housing option, work at his job and continue his substance abuse program. As one of the longer tenured guys in the home, he helps run the house’s weekly meeting with Fowler, and helps the others in the house get to work and adjust to life outside the walls of a correctional facility.

Samuel Hurt, released from ECCC in late June, is another man that lives in the transitional home. Compared to living in a shelter, Hurt said the difference is drastic.

“The environment’s totally different, and it seems like everybody here is on the same page as far as wanting to change and righting your life, and places like that (shelters), everybody is on a different path, and kind of get caught up in that,” said Hurt, who is from Chickasha.

Similar to Wright, Hurt said if he’d returned to the same environment as he was pre-incarceration, he’d have probably ended up in a shelter, or worse.

Overextended Oklahomans: Everyday Oklahomans struggling financially (click here to see all stories of series)

“I’d be right back in the same environment that I was before. Even with me truly wanting to change, when you’re put back in an environment like that, and with no help and no things like that you tend to go back to doing, not necessarily what you was doing before, but things you’re having to do just to survive,” Hurt said.

Fowler said housing programs such as Hope Outreach transitional housing provide a positive impact on the community and a better option than just releasing prisoners into the community without any support.

“A person living in their neighborhood not going through a program like this and the likelihood of them committing another crime is high. Really, a place like this in your neighborhood is going to increase safety, betterment if community, reducing crime rate within that community. It directly affects the well-being of a community to have places like this,” Fowler said.

If it weren’t for the opportunities the transitional home provided, things would be looking quite different for Wright.

“I would have went back to family, but I would have been in the same town with the same friends, the same people, the same obstacles. It would have been a whole lot of the same stuff, and that’s not what we’re looking for,” Wright said, “We have to have something different. The same stuff just leads to the same stuff.”


Information from: Enid News & Eagle, https://www.enidnews.com

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