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Program aids newly released prison inmates


By S.E. Ruckman -- Associated Press

HENRYETTA, Okla. (AP) - Fate had a way of finding Charley Wilson while he was serving time for a drug-related conviction at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite.

The 28-year-old picked up a brochure left by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program officials and began reading. The brochure helped change his outlook on life.

''I filled out the paper, and they came to see me, and I got a case manager,'' he said. ''They built a relationship with me.''

Close to his release time, Wilson found assistance from the tribe's reintegration program that helped him develop a workable plan for the outside.

He landed a job with a food service contractor at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa as a kitchen employee and was able to get an apartment. That allowed him to save for the $600 fee to get his driver's license back.

The program, which focuses on helping tribal citizens in prison get back into the swing of life, also helped him with bus passes, rent, referrals and morale boosts.

The initiative's mentor was tribal legislator Keeper Johnson, who drafted a bill to get the program started in 2004. Johnson was a vocational rehabilitation officer for more than 20 years.

Gaming revenues of $500,000 annually comprise the bulk of the program's funding, officials said. The amount could grow with its success, Johnson said.

Creek Nation caseworkers target people who are about to be released from prison and concentrate on providing them with basic life skills - such as catching a bus or setting an alarm clock, caseworker Andrea Alexander said.

The Creek Nation re-entry program has developed liaisons with ''friendly'' vendors in case of unforeseen circumstances for clients who are overwhelmed by common living emergencies.

''We have local contacts set up that if we need to, we can get food, clothing or shelter within 24 hours,'' Alexander said.

Most clients are men; only about 5 percent are women.

''Women inmates mostly have children waiting on them on the outside,'' Alexander said. ''Their motivation for being successful is different.''

Of about 250 inmates who have taken part in the program so far, only two have gone back to jail, Alexander said.

Details in helping people make the transition from prison to the outside are important, Johnson said.

''The alternative is for them to return to prison, and we can't have that,'' he said. ''These people are Creeks; they are our citizens.''

The Creek Nation program also makes referrals for other tribes' members who need reintegration services. Only two other Oklahoma tribes have prison reintegration programs - the Comanches and the Chickasaws.

But other tribes, such as the Absentee Shawnee and the Cherokee Nation, are expressing interest in similar programs.

Jimmy Ivey, the Chickasaw Nation's re-entry coordinator, said his tribe's program is newer but that it is growing at a hasty pace.

''We have about 100 clients in our program,'' he said. According to Oklahoma Department of Corrections demographics, about 2,195 inmates, or 8.7 percent, are American Indian.

Most Native offenders are serving time for drug- or alcohol-related crimes, although some have committed offenses such as murder and robbery.

Wilson, the Creek Nation client, is enthusiastic about the future. He hopes to go back to school and finish his degree. But he stresses the helping hand he received from the re-entry program.

''They were there for me; it was the real deal,'' he said. ''People always promise things, then don't deliver; but they did. It made all the difference.''