The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program provides intensive case management and reentry services to tribal members who have been incarcerated. When clients are released from custody, the program provides financial assistance for basic needs such as housing, clothing, and groceries, and offers long-term support through educational, vocational, and legal services.
Program Running Length: 2005 - Present
Location: The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is headquartered in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The Muscogee Nation has a contiguous jurisdictional area covering eight neighboring counties in Oklahoma: Creek, Hughes, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, McIntosh, Muskogee, Tulsa, and Wagoner.
Land Characteristics: The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is located in central Oklahoma, sometimes called Frontier Country, where wooded hills gradually transition to rolling short-grass prairie.
Population: In 2013, there were 77,061 people enrolled in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Of these, 55,591 lived within the state of Oklahoma. Membership to the tribe is based on lineage, and does not require a minimum blood quantum.
Problem to Be Addressed
People who have been incarcerated face unique obstacles to successful community reintegration upon release from prison. These barriers to reentry often exacerbate existing mental health and substance abuse problems and can increase the likelihood of recidivism. Mainstream reentry programs do not adequately address the needs of Muscogee citizens who have been incarcerated. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation wanted to develop a program that could assist its citizens with reintegrating into life on the reservation after serving time in prison.
In 2004 the Muscogee (Creek) Nation began to develop legislation to create a reentry initiative for Muscogee citizens. The tribe recognized the need for services and agreed to fund a one-year pilot project. In 2005, the tribe passed legislation to create the Reintegration Program. The pilot project was fully funded by the tribe and was staffed with a director, two caseworkers, and a secretary.
After the first year, Reintegration Program staff presented data to tribal council about the services it was able to provide to Muscogee citizens. After the program’s second year, enough data had been collected by program staff to show a 96% success rate among participants. The program defined success as the acquisition of pro-social skills, successfully applied in securing housing, employment, or education, while incurring no new criminal charges.
In 2007, program staff again went before tribal council and proposed legislation to ensure the program would be refunded every year. The program also secured tribal funding to add two new caseworkers. In 2009, the tribe allocated additional funding for two new case aides to assist with processing cases and providing services. The program expanded further under 2011 and 2013 CTAS grants and currently operates with a staff of 14.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program seeks to improve public safety by removing barriers to successful community reintegration for Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizens.
Pre-release: Reintegration Program services begin inside the prison. Prison staff identifies Muscogee citizens and refer them to the Reintegration Program. Whenever possible, Reintegration Program staff conduct assessments in prison and determine eligibility so inmates can began services while awaiting release.
Program staff visits Muscogee inmates regularly, offering group sessions on substance abuse and seminars on planning for reentry, job skills, and character building. Classes include: White Bison, Thinking for a Change, and Victims’ Impact. Inmates who are mandated to take classes prior to release are given priority by the Reintegration Program. There is often a waiting list, so some inmates take classes after they have been released. Class size is typically limited to 12 individuals and classes are held twice per week. The Reintegration Program offers classes at any of the 9 prisons within a 60-mile radius on a rotating basis, in 12-week cycles. The program maintains contact with all 33 prisons in Oklahoma.
The program also facilitates cleansing ceremonies to help inmates prepare spiritually for reentry into society. Reintegration Program staff work with prison chapels to provide rocks for sweats, offer blessings, and coordinate sponsors. A 2014 art contest at John Lilly Correctional Facility helped inmates connect with their spiritual side, and some of the submissions are on display at the Reintegration Program office.
Additionally, staff conducts annual visits to Oklahoma’s state prisons, where they deliver presentations to staff and inmates on the Reintegration Program’s services. Staff also attends parole hearings to discuss rehabilitation planning and report on the progress of Muscogee inmates. In some cases, these efforts have led to earlier release.
“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 philosophy we’re trying to instill in our citizens." - Tony Fish, Program Manager
Post-release: The Reintegration Program offers many post-release services. Case managers, who are available 24/7, help clients secure basic needs and provide support as clients’ transition to life outside prison. The program first addresses clients’ immediate physical and financial needs, then engages clients in services designed to promote long-term stability and successful reintegration. Services are tailored to the client’s needs and can include:
- Housing: The Reintegration Program helps clients secure housing that is both affordable and sustainable. The program may cover initial housing costs, including security deposit or rent. Program staff takes a step-down approach, scaling back their assistance as clients are able to assert their independence and take on greater financial responsibility. The program conducts random housing inspections to ensure clients are living in safe and healthy conditions, and that they are complying with housing rules. While inspections are primarily designed to prevent violations or evictions, they also facilitate a more gradual transition from the structured environment of life in prison to life on one’s own in the community. The program may also help clients set up utilities and pay for the first few months of utilities bills.
- Clothing: The program provides each client with new clothing. Staff also teaches clients how to effectively shop for themselves, for example, by offering assistance with sizing, price comparison, etc. The program spends approximately $300 per client on clothing, and this is typically a one-time service. However, the program may assist with additional expenses if the items are required for a new job, such as steel-toed work boots, tools, or black slacks and white button-down shirts.
- Groceries: A one-time food allocation is determined by household size. The program provides up to $150 for a single individual and up to $300 for a family of three or more. Staff members accompany clients who receive the food stipend on shopping trips to impart skills like price comparing and to encourage healthy, nutritious choices. The program also has an in-house pantry with non-perishable food items for emergency relief.
- Career development: Clients are required to seek employment. Program staff assists clients with resume preparation and provide lists of employers that are open to hiring individuals with criminal records. Clients must demonstrate on a weekly basis that they are actively pursuing employment. The program also helps clients arrange transportation to job sites.
- Educational opportunities: The Reintegration Program assists clients who are pursuing education programs—like high school equivalency degrees, vocational training, college classes, or trade school—by paying for some tuition costs or purchasing books and materials.
- Personal guidance: Reintegration Program staff makes referrals to tribal behavioral health, mental health, and substance abuse services, as well as state behavioral health agencies. Case managers also help clients set up medical appointments and negotiate payment schedules.
- Substance-abuse testing: Reintegration Program participants must submit to random drug testing. Testing is only for prevention purposes, to determine if there is a need for treatment services. Testing positive does not result in punishment or removal from the program.
- Community service: Participants who are not working are required to volunteer their time to give back to the community, help elders, and improve the general public’s perception of offenders. Volunteering also helps boost participants’ self-esteem.
- Cultural activities: The Reintegration Program owns and operates a sweat lodge on site that is used to promote physical and spiritual cleansing. The sweat lodge is open and available to the public. The program is also building a round house to be used for cultural activities.
- Legal counsel: The Reintegration Program has an attorney on staff who is funded by the tribe and Legal Aid of Oklahoma. The attorney assists clients with their legal issues upon release from prison, including negotiating payment plans with the courts and assisting with child support orders or other legal obligations.
- Reintegration Program Youth Services: A youth services coordinator attends local schools to raise awareness about the consequences of substance abuse and other behaviors that may lead to criminal activity or self-harm. For example, the youth counselor organizes an impaired driving course, in which youth wear goggles that impair their vision and depth perception in order to help them experience how alcohol can impair their senses and impact their ability to drive. These services are provided to non-native youth as well.
- Public tours: The Reintegration Program sets up tours of local correctional facilities to educate the community about life in prison. During these tours, staff facilitates a conversation on living conditions and other aspects of incarceration. Youth as well as adults are welcome to attend.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program staff includes a program director, four case managers, two case aides, and an administrative assistant. The program has its own receptionist and a staff attorney on-site.
Case Flow Process
Because the Nation funds the program, clients must be enrolled Muscogee citizens in order to qualify. If an applicant is not yet enrolled but is eligible for tribal membership, program staff will first assist the applicant with enrollment. In addition, clients must also have served time in a prison facility to access services. However, program staff hopes to eliminate the prison requirement in order to allow them to work in a preventative capacity as well.
Clients may be referred by family members, caseworkers, or prison managers. They may also self-refer. Applicants complete an intake assessment packet, and program staff determines eligibility. Eligible clients are assigned a case manager, who evaluates and prioritizes the client’s needs for pre- and post-release services and develops a customized reintegration aftercare plan.
To encourage referrals, the program conducts community outreach, delivers presentations in prisons, and sets up tables at job fairs and other community events. The program also has a public relations campaign that includes television commercials and print ads.
Supervision and Compliance
Case managers provide ongoing support, services, and supervision. Provided that the client remains in compliance, staff will continue providing support until it is no longer needed. Clients must also attend their probation or parole hearings, meet their financial obligations, and remain substance-free. Caseworkers monitor compliance and meet with non-compliant clients to help them re-establish compliance.
A case is closed when services are no longer needed. Persistent non-compliance may result in the suspension and eventual termination of services.
PLANNING AND IMPLEMENTATION
Funding for core services comes from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s annual budget. As the program has expanded and increased its caseload, the Nation has allocated additional funding to hire new staff members. The Nation has also dedicated resources to build a new facility and provided land for the sweat lodge. Construction of the facility began in 2015.
In addition to tribal funding, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program was awarded a 2011 Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation (CTAS) Purpose Area #4 planning grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. This grant allowed program staff to survey the Nation’s existing resources and plan for a correctional alternative facility. The funding also allowed the Reintegration Program to hire two new staff members to complete a needs assessment for the Nation’s criminal justice and social services systems. The staff conducted over 400 community surveys, the results of which indicated a need for a transitional living facility.
Using the data collected under the planning grant, Reintegration Program staff applied for and received a 2013 CTAS construction grant to build a transitional living facility. The tribe agreed to match the $3.25 million dollar grant for the new facility, which will include housing units for thirty-six clients, a new administration building, and classrooms that will provide state-of-the-art educational and vocational training. Vocational training will focus on offender-friendly industries like welding and automotive repair and provide industry-approved certifications. The Reintegration Program will hire ten staff members for the new facility, including instructors and a maintenance crew. Additionally, the tribe purchased twenty-one acres for the new facility.
In 2012, the Nation was awarded a Second Chance Act Grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance that enabled the Reintegration Program to provide services to Native American clients from other tribes. Prior to this grant, the program was supported entirely by Nation funds and served only Muscogee citizens—the tribal code requires that programs funded entirely by the Nation must serve Muscogee citizens exclusively. The Second Chance Act funding also allowed the program to hire a new staff member to oversee the grant-funded services. This grant has since expired, but the Nation will continue to seek federal funding for this program in the future.
Beginning in 2011, the Reintegration Program received technical assistance from a provider assigned by the Bureau of Justice Assistance as part of the CTAS grant. In addition, several staff members attended Planning of New Institution (PONI) trainings provided by the National Indian Justice Center (NIJC).
The Reintegration Program staff works closely with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, local service providers, and the Muscogee community. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has provided letters of support for various projects and has made its conference rooms available to the program for public education and meetings. Additionally, the former Deputy Director of Institutions for the State of Oklahoma is on the Reintegration Program’s advisory board.
Factors Contributing to Success
The Reintegration Program’s coordinator attributes the program’s growth and success to ongoing support from the tribal council, particularly the tribe’s two chiefs. In addition, the program staff is dedicated, well-trained, and works effectively with clients. Tribal agencies contribute to the program’s success by providing wrap-around services for behavioral, mental health, and employment training programs.
Initially, the Reintegration Program faced resistance from the community for being soft on crime. Staff addressed this challenge by engaging in dialogue with community members about Native cultural responses to criminal behavior and how the Muscogee have traditionally addressed crime and punishment. Staff worked with the community to explain how reintegrating offenders through traditional holistic practices creates safer communities. The Reintegration Program gradually gained support through community outreach, clear and open communication, and inviting clients to discuss their experience with community members. This approach helped community members understand that offenders had served their time and needed to be reintegrated in order to help them become responsible community members.
"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, and the chances of them committing another crime is high, or somebody out there is helping, guiding, and directing them, providing them services and they have an alternative, a place to go. What makes you feel safer? I know the services make me feel a lot safer." -Program Manager
The number of participants in the Reintegration Program increased steadily during the first few years. From 2007 to 2008, the program averaged 150 open cases. By 2009, the program averaged 200 open cases, split between the program’s four case managers. Each year, approximately 80-90 new cases are opened and roughly the same number is closed. In 2013, the program saw a decrease in new cases because of changes within the State of Oklahoma’s process for releasing offenders. That year, there were approximately 80 active cases and another 200 pending cases waiting for offenders to be released from prison. However, program staff anticipates a significant increase in the number of program participants once the new transitional living facility is completed.
Recidivism rates among program participants are approximately 5%, which is dramatically lower than national or state averages.
Oklahoma officials have demonstrated their trust and confidence in the Reintegration Program. District judges now refer Muscogee citizens directly to the Reintegration Program upon release from prison or jail, and correctional facilities invite program staff to present on the Reintegration Program to Muskogee inmates. Parole boards are more likely to grant parole to inmates who are eligible for the Reintegration Program upon release.
The Reintegration Program is also recognized as a leading reentry program by neighboring tribes. The program has engaged tribes across the state through the Oklahoma Native American Reentry Alliance. As many as 25 tribes attend Alliance meetings. In 2014, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation hosted a reentry committee meeting at an intertribal council meeting of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma. Although only two of the five tribes have reentry programs, two more tribes are in the planning stages and intend to learn from the experiences and successes of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Reintegration Program.
Above all, participants and their families have expressed overwhelmingly positive responses to the Reintegration Program. The program’s benefits are well known in the region, and in some cases Muscogee descendants have sought to establish tribal membership with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in order to become eligible for Reintegration Program services.
Lorraine was a participant in the Reintegration Program and mother of seven who, after 20 years of marriage, got divorced and started drinking. She was subsequently arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for two years for driving under the influence. While serving her time, other Native inmates told Lorraine about the Reintegration Program. Lorraine had no plans for where to go when she was released, so she entered the program and began diligently working with her case manager to put her life back in order. Lorraine now has a job and is working toward getting custody of her kids.
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