New Okla. DOC programs prep inmates for life outside prison

Employment alone reduces an offender’s likelihood of recidivism by more than 40 percent

By Kevin Hassler
Enid News & Eagle

OKLAHOMA CITY — The last time Tina McAtee walked out of prison, she was armed with a bus ticket and $50 courtesy of the Department of Corrections.

She had no job skills and, as she puts it, “I didn’t even have a chance to get a job.”

So she went back home to Lawton and fell back under the sway of the bad influences — and drug addiction — that put her in prison in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, she found herself in prison a third time.

She’s not proud of that.

As her December release date approaches, McAtee, 56, vows this time will be different. For one thing, she’ll have culinary skills and a food handler’s license.

“I was tired of coming back to prison, she said. “I wanted a change. I wanted to be proud of myself for a change.”

On Thursday, McAtee was among the first three graduates of Work Ready Oklahoma’s new culinary program.

They represent the early results of what organizers hope will be a long, fruitful partnership between The Education and Employment Ministry, an Oklahoma City nonprofit, the Department of Corrections, CareerTech and the U.S. Department of Labor.

The culinary class represents the second phase of an effort to give second chances to non-violent offenders, who are burdened with at least one felony conviction and often face skeptical bosses who are reluctant to hire them.

Employment alone reduces an offender’s likelihood of recidivism by more than 40 percent, said Kris Steele, executive director of the ministry. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because Steele was once Speaker of the Oklahoma House and a big supporter of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which aimed to find alternatives to incarceration.

Steele’s organization, which for decades worked with the impoverished, shifted its focus three years ago to non-violent felons nearing their release from prison, in hopes of reducing the number of inmates who return.

Steele said few groups in the state share its aims — teaching offenders life and job skills, then helping them find work.

But it’s a critical mission, given the state’s soaring prison population.

McAtee is among 28,000 Oklahomans now behind bars.

The state has the highest rate of female incarceration and the third-highest rate of men in prison in the country.

One in 12 Oklahomans has a felony conviction.

The large prison population is costly. Each prison inmate costs taxpayers about $20,000 per year, according to the group.

The culinary program is the second phase of the Work Ready initiative, which seeks to reduce those numbers.

Seven people — affectionately called the “Magnificent 7” — already have graduated from a welding program that represented Phase 1. All seven were hired. Eight new students now are enrolled.

McAtee graduated from the first culinary program, which also required students to take classes on topics including resume writing, anger management and financial management.

Of six women who started the program, three finished. All three have landed jobs at local grocery stores. Each is scheduled for release in the next three to six months.

They were celebrated Thursday afternoon in a room filled with dignitaries, other enrollees, the women’s families and their children.

Next month the partnership will expand to a third class, this one aimed at teaching inmates to operate heavy machinery. Down the road there’s talk of a computer skills course and classes in construction and maintenance.

McAtee said she highly recommends the program to prisoners, as long as they’re ready to change.

She now knows that she wasn’t ready the first two times she was in prison. She’s worked through her anger, she said, and is ready to embrace her future as a free woman.

“I know the road’s not going to be easy,” she said. “It’s not easy for anyone.”

On Friday, she’ll begin orientation at a new job as a deli clerk. She’ll work behind the counter during the day, and by night she’ll return to prison to serve the rest of her sentence.

But this time, she vowed, the outcome will be different. With a new job and life skills, she said, she’ll never again end up behind bars.

“I’m not going back,” she said. “I can’t.”

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