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Ginnie Graham: CEOs lead way in helping former inmates find work

Ginnie Graham: CEOs lead way in helping former inmates find work

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When Paula Marshall asks her fellow chief executive officers the last time they looked at a job application form for their companies, most haven’t in years — if at all.

For the Bama Cos. CEO, this is the first step in explaining how their hiring practices can shift to improve their bottom line and give women who have made bad choices a chance to make real changes in their lives.

“I ask, ‘Do you have a box asking if you are a convicted felon?’ Most nod yes, they probably have that,” Marshall said. “I say the minute that is checked, you are not going to hire those people. They are getting thrown out.”

Marshall is taking a lead in roundtable discussions with Tulsa-area company executives about supporting the Women in Recovery program and others like it.

The nonprofit agency helps women who are released from prison obtain job skills, get housing, stay sober and become better parents. The program makes sure employees have transportation to work and provides counseling for stability and any rough patches they may face.

When Marshall talks about companies giving support, she means for them to hire convicted felons. She means for companies to become partners with prison reintegration programs to boost workforce quality.

“We have some long-term issues, and we need to eliminate the high incarceration rate in Oklahoma,” she said. “We still have thousands of women incarcerated, and change isn’t going to happen overnight. But we can start offering an opportunity with jobs.

“It will help our companies have a semi-skilled workforce because many industries have in-house training programs. These are women coming in drug-free, with a GED and a willingness to work.”

Women imprisoned: Oklahoma continues to rank No. 1 in the rate of female incarceration, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It’s been that way for a few years now.

It seems to bother a lot of Oklahomans. Yet, turning the ship around from prison to prevention, from incarceration to intervention, is taking a while. Changing that approach and mindset would not just help women, but also men because Oklahoma ranks No. 4 in the rate of imprisonment (behind Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi).

When Marshall was contacted a few years ago by Tulsa businessman and philanthropist George Kaiser about the Women in Recovery program, she was surprised to learn of Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate. She and her executive team met with the participants.

“We realized many women come from very unfortunate circumstances and had nonviolent offenses,” Marshall said. “They got caught up in the bad choices from their upbringing and were trying to survive. That’s when they got in trouble.”

Marshall’s conclusions aren’t anecdotal.

Ongoing research into the backgrounds of women in Oklahoma prisons by University of Oklahoma professor Susan Sharp found 60 percent were abused or neglected as children, 90 percent experienced domestic violence as adults and many remain untreated for the mental-health needs brought on by this trauma. More than half did not finish high school, and at least half are mothers.

Sharp estimates up to 80 percent of women in prison are nonviolent offenders. Statisticians differ on the term “nonviolent.” Some inmates may have violent offenses, such as assault, but the underlying reasons are drug addictions or undiagnosed mental health disorders.

Costs of incarceration range from about $27,700 a year at a maximum security prison to about $15,000 at a minimum-security facility, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

“These are systemic issues,” Marshall said. “If we were able to divert three-fourths of the women who end up incarcerated, we would save millions in Oklahoma. Right now, it’s out of sight, out of mind. But the cost of running the penal system is crazy, and all it does is make hardened criminals. We are throwing good money down the drain.”

Justice Reinvestment ignored: The state Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2012 that would have put reforms in place to reduce the prison population and give more support to released prisoners. It went largely unimplemented.

“Our greatest need is for our state Legislature to look at it and adopt it instead of being so interested in incarcerating everyone,” Marshall said. “If I had a dream, it would be to change the system.”

For companies, hiring ex-convicts from the work reintegration programs would provide a more consistent workforce, Marshall said. The biggest hiring obstacles are application form felony bans and the turnover of employees.

With many industries having on-the-job training programs for entry-level work, hiring an enthusiastic person should count for more than their past mistakes. Also, they are more likely to stay with the job.

“Oklahoma does not have enough people to do the work, and there is no end in sight for that,” Marshall said. “We need a complete change of thinking. We can’t think of labor anymore as widely available and people ready to jump up ready to start the day. The difference here is that these women have the spirit and have the desire to work, which is more than what some people coming into our facilities have right now.”

Marshall has hired at least 10 full-time workers from Women in Recovery, and one became a supervisor. She plans to continue holding meetings with executives about how to increase participation with these types of programs.

The meetings have the backing from the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women with involvement of seven workforce programs. Besides Bama, other companies involved with this mission include Alpha Machining, APSCO, Hyatt and S&R Compression.

“Many of these women are just trying and are desperate for a job,” she said. “They want to stay out of jail, keep in contact with their kids and not get into trouble.”

Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

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