Cherokee Nation program helps former inmates reintegrate

Senior Reporter
02/15/2019 08:15 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Charity Chippewa is among the Cherokee Nation citizens who have taken advantage of the Career Services Coming Home Reintegration Program. The re-entry program gave her the opportunity to pursue a career in counseling and a job to provide for her family. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – When people complete prison sentences, they are rarely released into situations of stability and often enter a new phase of their ordeal.

The aim of the Coming Home Reintegration Program offered by Cherokee Nation Career Services is to mitigate the difficulties of transitioning from prison to private life.

“Once these individuals pay their debt to society, they return to their home communities,” Kim Carroll, Career Services grants and compliance director, said. “We want all Cherokee citizens to be successful and self-sufficient, and those released from incarceration have numerous barriers confronting them.”

Those recently released from incarceration often have no driver’s license, car or money and few clothes. Many are in debt due to fines, restitution payments or back child support. Food and shelter may be difficult to secure, and substance abuse or mental health issues can hinder efforts to re-assimilate. Finding employment is also frequently arduous.

“A recent study of one employment program we operate found that 35 percent of the individuals seeking services had a criminal background, and 18 percent of those had felony convictions,” Carroll said.

Coming Home has four “core” counselors with varied backgrounds in relevant training who serve the CN’s jurisdiction.

The program’s manager is Matt Lamont, who previously served more than three years as a job and business development coordinator for Career Services, and held positions during 12 years with Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Program participants are given $250 worth of clothing and hygiene items so they can begin looking for employment. Lamont said participants are assessed case by case and can qualify for driver’s license reinstatement fees and tests, job search and referral assistance, work tools and safety equipment, housing assistance and referral to CN assistance programs.

“It really helps to operate under the Career Services group because we have access to many programs and expertise,” Lamont said. “We also make sure they are following all the rules and regulations of their release. We assist them when we can, but they have to do the legwork. We offer life skills, budgeting, résumé (assistance), on the job training and other assistance.”

Lamont said he lived with a strong mother and stepfather who gave him and his siblings a stable home despite his father being incarcerated and re-offending.

“Everyone may not have this kind of support system,” Lamont said. “If we can help the recently released participant succeed and stay out, then the participants, children, mothers, fathers and loved ones don’t have to experience the pain caused by being sent back.”

The program reported 191 participants in 2018, with an average of about 16 participants per month. Typically, an enrollee has served one to five years in Oklahoma Department of Corrections custody, often for drug violations, but some in the program have served only a few months or more than 20 years.

“We are seeing positive outcomes due to the program,” Lamont said. “We have participants who have been successful in obtaining 15-to-25-dollar-an-hour jobs due both to their self-determination and our assistance.”

CN citizens who have been released from ODOC custody in the past 90 days and live within the tribe’s jurisdiction can apply.

“In working with the re-entry program, I've found some of the most dedicated employees come out of it,” Career Services Executive Director Diane Kelley said. “They have a positive attitude, they are disciplined and have an impeccable work ethic. We need more businesses willing to give them a second chance. They will make good employees.”

Those who go through the program and re-offend are not eligible to re-enroll, though Lamont said early data from a program review suggested Coming Home is reducing recidivism.

“This job is not the easiest, but the feeling that we as a re-entry staff get when we work with successful participants, who are making these positive changes, makes it worthwhile,” Lamont said. “We have a well-trained staff that is passionate about this subject matter and advocates for their clients. We are learning that most of these folks just want a chance and they will succeed. Many just made mistakes at a young age, but are now taking ownership of their past while looking to improve, move forward and become an asset to their families and communities.”
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