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OKLAHOMA CITY — A weathered electric scooter sits propped against Jacque Mize’s dining room wall.
For months, Mize, 43, would ride the scooter several miles from her transitional housing facility to her job at Goodwill and back again. Even in extreme heat, thunderstorms or snow, Mize said, she was on that scooter every day, working to put her life back together.
Mize said the scooter is partly a reminder to her of the hurdles she’s overcome since being released from prison in October 2021 — and those she hasn’t. Soon after her release, she discovered that having a felony conviction makes it extremely difficult to get a car loan.
Mize said the roadblocks to a second chance for formerly incarcerated people like her are numerous, and the lack of infrastructure for those reentering society means any slip-ups can have a snowball effect that ends in a return to prison.
“Getting your life back … it can be done,” Mize told the PBS NewsHour. “But you have to be on your toes once you get out because the system is really set up against you.”
Jacque Mize sits next to her red scooter which was her only means of transportation for months after being released from an Oklahoma prison. Photo by Adam Kemp/ PBS NewsHour
Through voter-approved sentencing reforms, historic gubernatorial commutations, and a rethinking of parole and probation, Oklahoma has tried to move away from being one of the nation’s leading incarcerators.
During his 2018 run for governor, Republican Kevin Stitt campaigned on lowering Oklahoma’s incarceration rate and emphasized the need to help those who’ve committed “nonviolent” crimes and put their lives back on track.
In his first year in office, Stitt signed the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history, releasing 523 people with low-level offenses. Stitt’s office said that, in all, he signed 774 commutations, 290 pardons, and 101 paroles in 2019.
In a 2019 visit to the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, where dozens of women were set to be released, Stitt urged them to reach out to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and to his office if they needed help with the transition back to life outside of prison.
“This is really a second chance for each and every one of you,” Stitt told the group. “Everything depends on you getting tough and making sure that you get the help that you need so you do not come back here and make the same mistakes that have happened in the past.”
“Oklahomans want to help walk beside you and give you a second chance,” he added.
From those original commutations, more than 200 people had been re-arrested, according to a Department of Corrections list released in April and first reported by The Oklahoman. Of those, 21 are back in prison.
Since that largest single-day commutation, Oklahoma has selected thousands more people for early release. More than three years later, formerly incarcerated people and criminal justice experts say the state’s infrastructure to help newly freed Oklahomans build a life to avoid a return to prison is still lacking.
“It was a harsh realization that things that are really easy for someone not in our situation is a whole different challenge for us,” Mize said. “We have to work for everything that we get.”
Mize said she started using methamphetamines at 11 years old. In 30 years of dealing with addiction, she has been in and out of county jail and prison.
In 2018, Mize was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a range of charges including unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, concealing stolen property and larceny.
But after serving three years of her sentence, she was granted early release in October 2021.
Mize left prison with the clothes she was wearing and an alarm clock. She struggled to obtain her personal documents to get a driver’s license. She paid thousands of dollars in fines and insurance to obtain one.
She spent her first eight months after prison living in a transitional housing facility and bought her scooter to help her get to work.
When Mize reconnected with her daughter, the two wanted to secure a place to live together. They searched for months but apartment complexes either wouldn’t rent to a person with a felony conviction on their record or would charge more than $200 for a rental application fee.
When they finally found an apartment building that would rent to them, the price of admission was steep. The building management asked for first and last month’s rent in addition to a deposit, and the electric bill had to be paid before they could move in. The fees totaled nearly $3,000.
But Mize considers herself relatively fortunate for a formerly incarcerated person. She has a job, she was able to save up some money and she was able to obtain an apartment.
“I just really made a decision with my life that I wanted it to be different,” she said. “But so many people are released with nothing and end up being forced to go back to the situation that got them in trouble the first time.”
Difficulty with housing, employment and transportation are the most common barriers holding Oklahomans back, said Lynde Gleason, the reentry supervisor for TEEM, a local nonprofit working to help ease the transition for those released from prison. Gleason said the recent influx of people being released from prison in Oklahoma has put an intense strain on nonprofit organizations attempting to help people acquire basic necessities.
“Of course we are thrilled to have these people out of prison, but the barriers to getting a place to live or to getting a job didn’t go anywhere,” Gleason said. “It’s highlighted just how far we still have to go.”
A prison cell block is seen following a tour by President Barack Obama at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., on July 16, 2015. Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, in a push to reform one of the most expensive and crowded prison systems in the world. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
TEEM offers reentry courses for those on the verge of release to begin the process of understanding what they will need to function back in society, while also teaching people about programs and services that are available.
Case managers are also available for those who need help securing documents, housing or employment. Gina Richie, a caseworker for TEEM who was once incarcerated herself, said she knows what it’s like to try to find a job or a place to stay and to be turned down because of your record.
Richie said she was sent back to prison after she wasn’t able to pay off court fines and fees.
“I had three children but no employer would give me an opportunity to work,” she said. “I wasn’t able to take care of my kids; I wasn’t able to pay my court costs and fines. So they sent me back [to prison].”
Released from prison in 2017, Richie said she is now dedicated to her clients. She is often on the phone with potential employers, prepping her clients for job interviews and even going with them to tour apartments, all in hopes of helping people avoid going back to prison.
“If you’ve got that felony on your back, a lot of people just don’t want anything to do with you,” Richie said. “It’s an uphill battle but we are clawing. We won’t stop.”
Terry-Ann Craigie, an economics fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said a person who serves time in prison makes roughly half as much money in their lifetime as someone with the same qualifications who never entered prison.
Craigie said the pandemic and its economic fallout have made reentry more difficult.
“It’s the most daunting it’s ever been for returning citizens,” she said.
Transitional housing programs are one of the few tools Oklahoma communities have to help former prisoners start building stability right away.
But there aren’t enough of them to help everyone who is released. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections doesn’t keep a complete list of this kind of housing, but the charities who run them say they’re often full, and most are clustered in the state’s two largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, leaving those in more rural communities without many options.
Nationally, more than 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The most recent government study of recidivism reported that 82 percent of people released from state prisons in 2008 across 24 states were arrested at some point in the 10 years following their release. The vast majority of those, the study found, were arrested within the first three years, and more than half within the first year. The longer the time period, the higher the reported recidivism rate — but the lower the actual threat to public safety.
A separate study by the James Madison Institute in 2019 found that states with the strictest licensing requirements for those with felonies on their record also have the highest recidivism rates.
Damion Shade, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said the state is in the middle of a multi-year reform of the criminal legal system.
In 2016, Oklahoma reclassified drug possession and certain theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. This change meant that these offenses are no longer eligible for a state prison sentence. But it was only applied prospectively, meaning those already serving sentences for 780 offenses were not eligible for relief under the new law.
To ensure people were not left behind, the Oklahoma legislature passed House Bill 1269 to allow people currently in prison for those offenses to apply for expedited commutation and record expungement. That led to large commutation efforts in 2019 and 2020.
In 2022, Oklahoma passed new laws to bolster the state’s workforce and help facilitate quality jobs for those exiting incarceration. The Clean Slate legislation will make expungements automatic for those who qualify in the coming years. The state also enacted Occupational Licensing Reform, which ensures that a conviction used to deny a license is related to the occupation the individual is applying for.
Shade said he believes the next big steps will be giving formerly incarcerated people the tools to be successful, such as treatment for mental health and substance-abuse issues; and setting up more programs to help formerly incarcerated people get good jobs.
“The people who exit prison who have the opportunity to access treatment, to access job training, those sorts of things, by and large, those people are successful,” Shade said. “That is how we continue to move out of the shadow of where we were.”
Jacque Mize is slowly adding furniture to her apartment. It took her four months to get a bed and a dining room table. She and her daughter now have a puppy named Rascal.
Jacque Mize sits sits in her apartment in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Housing is one of the biggest barriers for those re-entering society following a prison sentence Photo by Adam Kemp/ PBS NewsHour
Mize was able to ditch the scooter and buy a 2009 Honda. She’s been promoted to assistant manager at Goodwill and hopes to become general manager.
She said she knows there are people who will never forgive her or see her as anything more than a “convict.”
Mize also visits with women going through classes at TEEM, ready to give them advice and help encourage their journeys.
“I just tell them that there’s one thing they have to change and that’s everything,” she said. “If you think anything is going to be the same, it’s not.”
Adam Kemp is a Communities Reporter for the PBS NewsHour based in Oklahoma.
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