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Inmates say punishment doesn't stop after release
Tahlequah Daily Press - 11/2/2023
Nov. 2—Prisoners released from doing time for crimes face a continuing backlash from prospective employers, landlords and at the voting booth due to their criminal past.
In the 1970s, at age 20, Tahlequah resident Thea Nietfeld, a retired pastor, visited a prison, and was affected for life.
"I walked in where people couldn't get out of their cells, and it was in a big, round room with people behind bars," Nietfeld said.
At that time, the country was working on criminal reform, and Nietfeld visited the prison as part of her classes.
She voiced her angst at the situation individuals face upon being released after serving sentences for their crimes.
"They get their hopes up that things are going to be better when they get out," Nietfeld said. "But they keep being told no. People think they are dangerous, and don't want to live by them or give them a job."
Nietfeld's interest was recently piqued again after watching a documentary at the Tahlequah Public Library titled, "All I See is the Future." She found it heart-warming to hear experiences with and empathy for returning citizens.
"[The film shared stories of] family members who are or have been inside or have noticed unforgiving, or otherwise inhumane treatment of people who have been through the criminal system," Nietfeld said.
Nietfeld suggested that eliminating online sites like "Jailbirds.com" would be a start in toning down the discrimination against felons.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform "promote[s] just and appropriate accountability while reducing mass incarceration and its generational harm to families," that group's site states. It offers stories about the challenges released individuals face in efforts to secure housing.
An article on the OCJR website speaks of the children with parents or guardians who struggle to secure housing for their families.
"In our state, over 4,000 individuals are either unhoused or at risk of being unhoused due to their involvement in the justice system. According to a report by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, around 20% of children experiencing home stability challenges have a parent or guardian with a history of incarceration," the report stated.
Statistics on the site show that if an individual secures housing within six months of release, the likelihood of being incarcerated again within three years is reduced by 60%.
"It's clear that housing plays a critical role in the successful reintegration of justice-involved individuals into society. However, discrimination against these individuals by public housing authorities only serves to hinder their progress," stated the report.
Clifford Ratliff Jr. experiences discrimination daily since his release from jail in 2018 for a felony charge. Currently, Ratliff is serving several days in the Tahlequah City Jail for an outstanding warrant and for "speaking his mind" to the judge.
"I've been homeless [since 2018]," Ratliff said. "It's hard to get a job. Most places do a background check. That's fine, but they keep holding it against you. It's twice as hard. We've been living in tents."
Ratliff believes when people do their time, they should be able to go back to society and not be blackballed from creating a sustainable life — which includes finding a job, having a place to live, and voting.
Recently, the Tahlequah Police Department issued a press release alerting the public that ordinances against camping or sleeping on public property will be enforced.
"It affected us for a while, and we luckily found another place," Ratliff said.
Tahlequah Police Chief Nate King has met hundreds of individuals who have been incarcerated and then struggled after being released to blend back into society. Before King was chief of police, he was director of community sentencing, a state-funded probationary program designed as a diversion from recidivism.
"It is definitely a hurdle when someone is convicted of a crime when they get out of jail. It's not even just felonies," King said. "It's domestic violence, or a DUI. If you are a school teacher and you get convicted of domestic violence, you aren't a school teacher anymore."
There are employment opportunities, but it isn't easy, King said.
"Sometimes as human beings, we have consequences for our actions and sometimes those consequences linger longer than others," King said.
The Tahlequah Police Department has also begun working in conjunction with Working to Recover, Assist and Prevent (WRAP), an organization that coordinates resources for folks experiencing homelessness or substance abuse issues.
Ward 4 Tahlequah City Councilor Josh Allen has made it his mission to help individuals who are homeless due to trauma, imprisonment or substance abuse, and many times, all three of these situations fit an individual.
Allen's program through his church, Wings of Tahlequah Sober Living, helps men find work and housing after being released from jail or who are homeless and come to his program for help.
Allen said people are stuck in a system that is not built to help.
"My first call [when a new person comes to us] is to WRAP. Nine times out of 10, I can call WRAP and then WRAP will get them into the program," Allen said. "I'll write letters saying they are in my program, and we are going to drug-test them, going to get them a job, we're going to do X-Y-Z."
Allen said almost every time with WRAP and the Wings program the individual's warrants are erased when it is known that the person is being held accountable.
"Before WRAP was in the picture, I didn't know whom to call, what to do. WRAP tells me 'You need to write an email to this person,' or "Send a letter to this person.' and the people respond," he said.
The second article in this ongoing series addresses further the issues individuals face after being released from prison with a felony record. Future articles will include interviews with other former inmates.
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