Muscogee Creek Nation Reintegration Program Manager Tony Fish explains how and why his nation developed a prisoner reintegration program that reflects its culture, combats recidivism, and makes for a safer Muscogee Creek community.
Fish, Tony. "The Muscogee Creek Nation Reintegration Program," Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 16-18, 2009. Presentation.
"[Muscogee Creek language] I would like to say I'm honored to be here. I feel a privilege to be here today and to talk about our program. It's something that really affects us all and that's incarceration. If it doesn't effect us by our family members, friends that we know, acquaintances, it effects us as taxpayers. So incarceration effects each and every one of us.
The Muscogee Creek Nation Reintegration Program -- we're a tribally funded program designed to assist Creek citizens make the transition from prison back into society. Our mission is to promote and enhance the lives of our citizens. And we do this through a traditional, modern...we call it a modern yet traditional wrap-around approach to re-entry. The process establishes confidence, responsibility and independence by deliverance of services to meet the client's individual needs. The reintegration program reaches out to those not normally serviced and provides services and creates alternatives to incarceration, producing safer communities by decreasing recidivism through rehabilitation. We are able to achieve these results through a systematic approach of service delivery. And the first approach is addressing the immediate life sustaining needs.
Housing is one of the biggest factors concerning successful re-entry. Oftentimes, housing is not available to the offender because of the background check. Nobody wants them living in their neighborhoods. And that's where we have gone in and advocated for their best interest. Why wouldn't they want them living in their neighborhoods, if they're going to live in your neighborhoods anyway, whether you know it or you don't know it? So we assist them in obtaining housing conducive to their mental and physical well-being. If they committed a crime in one area of our Nation, we try not to send them back to that particular area. We try to send them to another area to give them a fresh start, where their old haunts are not there and they can start fresh and anew. We have to be compliant with tribal, state and federal laws regarding special offenses -- and that's violent offenses and sex offenses. Our tribe recently voted into law to monitor our own sex offenders within Oklahoma, so that's a step forward for us. Housing must be manageable for the client after services are exhausted. We don't put them in a house that they cannot afford once we pull our services back and we try to do a step-down process on housing. It's usually a couple of months, we'll step it down to a half-month and then we'll try to see if they can walk on their own after that. Now that's not conclusive, each plan is individualized depending on their need. Sometimes we may be there for a month; sometimes we may be there for six months. And I think that has been a contributing factor to our success. I like to say we don't have a specific cookie-cutter approach. We take each individual as a person and we look at what their desires and what their wants are and we develop a plan around their needs. Random housing inspections are conducted to insure safety and sanitary living conditions and to protect the property owner's investment in us. When we first started out, we had a couple incidences where we had to remove somebody from housing who wasn't compliant and in turn they ended up tearing the residence up and/or they left the hot water on, steamed the room up and everything, and it caused us to lose a housing apartment manager. And that's one of the things that we had to change within our program is to monitor that closely. And by doing that we have instilled confidence in the apartment managers to know we're going to take charge and they're going to be monitored to know that...it's also a paradigm shift for a lot of people too, because they haven't rented to people of this character before.
The next thing that we look at is their clothing needs. When they're released from incarceration, most of the time they just have an old tattered pair of jeans, a shirt -- sometimes it'll still say inmate on the back -- and their legal documentation. And that's all they have. So we go out and we get them brand new clothing, usually about $250 worth. We go through and we assist them in the shopping process. We've had a couple of guys here recently that never went out and shopped in a department store before. They didn't know how to size their clothes, their shoes or anything. So that's something that we were able to teach them going through just some of the simple things that we take for granted. We have a one time -- this is a one-time service with the exception of work-related clothing needs. Sometimes they go out in employment, they may need steel-toed work boots, they may need long sleeve shirts and so forth, sometimes the black slacks or whatever and then we can get that for them in addition to their clothing allowance.
From there we also look at the grocery assistance. DOC [Department of Corrections] most oftentimes will discharge the ex-offender with a $50 check. And if they don't have no place to go to, a lot of times they'll spend that on one night in a motel room, if they're lucky to find one that cheap. So we have a, we do a food assistance allocation. It's determined by household size. If it's one person, it's $150, and up to $300 for three or more. We also have an in-house pantry with non-perishable food items and it's basically an emergency on the spot. Sometimes we get people that never, they say they've never heard about our program. They were dropped off in Tulsa and they've got a backpack. And they're walking down there to our office; they show up Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock. Well, it's kind of hard to go and start getting services together, right then and there, especially to the grocery stores and so forth. So we keep a stockpile of items there at our office. We can put them up in a motel room, get them through the weekend, and then start hard and fresh on their case first thing Monday morning. My case managers are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they've never hesitated once about going out of their way to help somebody. And I've been real fortunate and I thank them for that.
Career development: participants are required to seek employment unless a debilitating illness is present. And if there is a debilitating illness, then we give a referral to vocational rehabilitation. They may go to the -- if they're a veteran they may go to Veterans Affairs, Social Security Disability, and so forth. They at least have to make that contact and get the process started. Here lately, we've been working with the facility case managers even more, up to six months prior to the projected release. So if we know that they have a disability we can start that process and it's ready for them once they're released.
The resume preparation: we have a resource directory at our office. We teach them how to write a resume. We give them sample resumes; how to talk to the employer, how to sell their self basically with the skills that they have. They must fill out weekly job contacts, kind of like the unemployment office -- that there just shows their initiative to go out and to actively seek employment -- and we provide them a list of offender-friendly employers. I had somebody ask me one time, 'Why do you do that? How come you don't go out and have their job ready for them?' And I tell them that this is something that needs to be learned on their own. We're there to help them and guide them through this process, but it's not something we're going to do for them. We're going to walk with them but we're not going to walk in front of them or we're not going to walk behind them. It's kind of like the old proverb says, 'You give a man a fish, you feed him for today; but you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.' And that's what we're trying to do, is we're trying to teach these guys skills that they can utilize for the rest of their life.
Educational opportunities are available to participants who are interested in developing their skill level. We have GED classes, vocational training, trade school and we have college classes. We had here recently, we had two graduate from the Tulsa Technology Center. They're still incarcerated. The college goes out there to them, teaches the courses. And we provide the tuition and the books to take care of that. So we were excited about that. We also have agreements with trade schools where we can go in and get certifications in welding and carpentry and plumbing and different skills. It's not really a lengthy process, but it's something they can do in about six or eight months and get out into the job market and be successful.
Specialized re-entry services: we do a lot of mentoring and faith-based support. I don't know if anybody's familiar with the 12 steps in the medicine wheel, but we have a facilitator in our office. She goes out and we hold groups in the prisons and we facilitate the 12 steps in the medicine wheel. It's been really successful. We started off with a group of about 15 and now we're in about our fourth or fifth group and we have about 25. One of the biggest things for me was is not all of them are not Native American. It's been able to be adapted to different cultures and races. So that's something that's been exciting to me. We try to get them involved in a higher power, their spiritual side. We believe that's very important in their success is to rely on your spiritual side -- whether it's traditional, ceremonial, the Stomp Dance, or if it's the Native American Church, or however their faith is -- we try to get them involved back into that.
Personal guidance and counseling: we give referrals to the Tribal Behavioral Health, Mental Health and Substance Abuse, and state behavioral health agencies. Oklahoma is the largest provider for mental health services in the state of Oklahoma; the Department of Corrections is the largest provider. And so for...we have a high percentage of clients who have either mental health or substance abuse issues. So that's something that we're really big on addressing those needs. We also do substance-abuse testing within our program. Participants must submit to random substance abuse testing, and this testing is for prevention and intervention purposes only. It's not to say that we got you, that we're trying to get you out of the program. If there's a need there that we see, then we're going to try and turn you into the right direction. Maybe you need more intensive outpatient treatment, maybe you need to go to inpatient treatment but we make sure that those needs are taken care of.
Service payback -- it's a really unique part of our program. We have guys a lot of times who are still looking for jobs, they're kind of in between. What we do is we require them to volunteer. And basically it's, 'You go out back into the community and you want to give back a little bit maybe of what you took. You can't give it back to the person you took it from, but through society as a whole.' We believe that it builds a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem to our clients. And it also changes the paradigms of the public, because a lot of times people have in their mindset what they see on TV and they don't see a person for who they actually are. So that gives us a chance to bring some of those walls down. We may send some of our clients out to cut grass for some of the elders who can't do it. And the elders, they really appreciate that and it's something that we need to do and something that we've done traditionally is take care of our elders. So it's really been beneficial to our clients and to our citizens as well. It may be moving furniture. We may have them volunteer at the Salvation Army cleaning shoes or putting clothes away or so forth.
Our caseload over the years has steadily increased. We have, from 2007 to 2008 we increased on an average of 150 cases on average per month. This year we have averaged at least 50 more than that. We were getting to the point where we were getting bogged down a lot and not addressing some of our main issues that we started with. And thankfully our tribe has agreed to give us additional staff members. They have bought us a new building to get into and it's going to have some acreage with it and we're going to look at doing some culture relevance things there, putting up a sweat lodge. A sweat lodge is one of the things that DOC [Department of Corrections] recognizes as a Native American practice and it's something that they want to continue on. So we want to build that and facilitate that for them as part of their cleansing.
A lot of times people ask me, 'Why do you want to help people that's been in prison, why?' And my question to them is, 'Why wouldn't you?' It just makes the most sense to me. Traditionally in our culture, once you pay your debt to society, we brought you back in, we restored you back into the tribe. And that's the same philosophy we're bringing in and teaching and trying to instill back into our citizens. These guys are going to be released one way or another. Whether they're released with nothing at all into your neighborhoods, into your streets with nothing and the chances of committing another crime is higher, or somebody out there helping them, guiding them, directing them, providing services to them; they have an alternative, a place to go to, desperation doesn't exist as much. What makes you feel safer? I know the services make me feel a lot safer and that's what our number one intention is, is to create safer communities in our Indian countries. It's something that to me, it's more of a calling. I don't look at this as a job; it's a calling in my life. It's something that I've been given the opportunity to, from the Creator. I've been blessed. And one day when I stand before him I want to be able to say I done everything I could according to what I have been instructed to do. Thank you."