OKLAHOMA CITY — Sarah Stitt first visited prison as a teenager while working with her father who ministered to inmates.
Stitt, now Oklahoma’s first lady, found her interest in incarceration renewed when her husband launched his bid for governor. She began to probe what she called the “really negative social statistics” and began to question the state’s female incarceration rate, generational poverty and abuse.
As her husband prepared to commute the sentences of 527 mostly low-level offenders in 2019, Stitt again began visiting Oklahoma’s women’s prisons. She questioned what was being done to help offenders obtain jobs, find housing, reunite with their children and find success outside the bars. She partnered with community organizations and nonprofits to bring job fairs behind prison walls in an effort to give the offenders the best chance to make it.
Stitt, who has made easing re-entry one of her key platforms, said many Oklahomans remain in prison for low-level offenses. When they’re released, they face many obstacles, including the lack of a state-issued ID, which makes it difficult for them to secure jobs or housing.
“If we want to see a change in these statistics, then we have to make sure that as people get out, we help them, and we come around them as a community to help them put their best foot forward and try to be successful,” Stitt said. “It’s a lot easier to slide back into whatever got them inside.”
For years, Oklahoma legislators focused on punishing and locking up offenders, but as the state’s prisons filled to capacity, criminal justice costs spiked and the incarceration rates reached the highest in the nation, the conversation in the halls of the Capitol has started shifting, observers say.
Now a bipartisan group of lawmakers is wrestling to ensure that the same Oklahomans that legislators' policies incarcerated can successfully reintegrate back into their communities and avoid returning to prison.
Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analyst at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said 99% of incarcerated Oklahomans will be released back into local communities.
The pandemic has highlighted the lack of re-entry services because the nonprofit resources that used to be available for inmates have shifted to other community priorities, he said.
“It’s visible, I think, to a lot of lawmakers just how terrible the circumstances and conditions that we are putting people who are justice-involved back into their communities,” Shade said. “It’s truly terrible.
But, while some reforms have been implemented — including easing restrictions on occupational licenses and parole — the state is still lacking a comprehensive re-entry system that gives the same experience to everyone who exits prison, he said.
The amount of money allocated to inmate skills training has dropped about 28% over the past decade, and there’s no uniform access to mental health or substance abuse treatment nor Medicaid enrollment services despite reports that nearly 72% of parolees still need access to care, Shade said.
He also said there’s no housing assistance and a large number of people who leave custody end up homeless.
The Department of Corrections also only has about four re-entry case managers for the entire state, Shade said. Those employees are currently focused on triaging the “highest risk” inmates, rather than those at moderate risk who would most benefit.
He said the state should invest some of its nearly $2 billion in incoming federal COVID-19 aid to build a re-entry system.
“If you’re fine with people coming back to your neighborhood who are desperate and will do anything to survive because they’ve been given no infrastructure and no chance, then continue with the status quo,” Shade said.
State Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, said he’s championing a piece of legislation that would require inmates be provided with the state’s federally-compliant identification card so they could go out and apply for jobs and secure housing.
Weaver, who spent nearly three decades in drug enforcement, said he believes that when someone serves their time, they need a fair chance to restore their lives.
He said he has realized that parolees don’t always have “a fighting chance” when they get out.
“When folks get out of our prisons, and they’ve been incarcerated for a time, then they have no real normal on the outside,” Weaver said. “They can’t get out like you and I and just start their day. They’ve got to start from scratch, literally. They’re trying to bake a cake, and they’ve got no ingredients.”
Weaver said his measure is a first step, but other reforms are needed including better integrating the state’s CareerTech program with correctional facilities so inmates can gain useful trade skills.
“So we can’t stop (with) that driver’s license and think that’s the golden ticket, and everything will fall in their lap,” said state Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City.
Munson was part of a recent bipartisan push to improve access to occupational licensing for former inmates so they can get licensed to work jobs like plumbing and electrical.
She first became interested in incarceration policies while working with the Girl Scouts. Her job, which was funded by a federal grant allocated to Girl Scout councils located in states with high incarceration rates, took her into juvenile centers in Oklahoma County.
Munson said every child she spoke with had a family member incarcerated, and many said they were headed to a women’s prison where their family was.
She said in the last couple of years, there has been a lot of efforts on both sides of the aisle and among interest groups to focus on the human and economic impact of incarceration and what it does not just to an individual’s life, but also their families and the greater community.
“Once they’ve served their time, they shouldn’t be essentially incarcerated back out in their communities,” Munson said. “They should have access to the things that make all of our live better — going to work, having stable housing, having access to health care, being with our family members, and our friends, and our children.”
But, she said she’s been disappointed that there haven’t been more conversations around the issue this session, and that Legislature has instead focused on divisive social issues.
She said there’s still a real need for wraparound services — like mental health and substance abuse treatment — to ensure that offenders are getting the things they actually need to thrive, Munson said.
“Some of the bipartisan priorities that have been a focus for many of us around criminal justice reform just seem to be going by the wayside,” she said. “And I don’t necessarily think that any of us have given up, aren’t interested in those issues or aren’t passionate around those issues.”