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How formerly incarcerated people are getting employment support in Oklahoma


People who've been in prison often struggle with employment. Elizabeth Caldwell from member station KWGS reports on some initiatives in Oklahoma meant to keep people afloat after incarceration.

ELIZABETH CALDWELL, BYLINE: At the beginning of every shift, Breeanna Jones and her team of so-called industrial athletes limber up their bodies, including their hands.

BREEANNA JONES: Right thumb, fingers extend, over and out; left thumb, fingers extend...

CALDWELL: They need their hands to knead dough. Jones works at Bama Companies at a plant that produces thousands of pounds of dough every day for McDonald's. After stretching, Jones tours the plant floor, where flour and other ingredients are piped into huge mixing bowls 24 hours a day.

JONES: And we have sheeting lines, where the dough goes onto the line and gets kind of beat out and then cut into discs.

CALDWELL: Jones worked her way up at Bama. Five years ago, she started as a pie packer. Then she became an inspector, making sure fruit fillings were good. She applied to be a supervisor several times before she finally got the job. Jones says she loves what she does, but not so long ago, her life was totally different. Some things happened, as she puts it.

JONES: I ended up in jail and in drug court. And I spent, I think, about six months in county jail and then six months in a rehab facility.

CALDWELL: When all that was over, Jones says she was in a tough spot. She was pretty young and had no idea how to even interview for a job. She got help through the Center for Employment Opportunities. It's a national nonprofit that recently celebrated the opening of a new facility in Tulsa.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: CEO strives to empower people...

CALDWELL: That's where I met Paula Marshall. She's the CEO of Bama Companies. She partners with the center to find workers. Out of about 900 employees, 40 at Bama have criminal records. Marshall says it's one thing to hire formerly incarcerated people and another to support them so that they can stay employed. Custody issues are often ongoing.

PAULA MARSHALL: 'Cause it doesn't just happen that their kids get brought back to them. They have to go through many months and sometimes years of custody, you know, issues. And so that costs a lot of money too.

CALDWELL: Housing can be a problem.

MARSHALL: I mean, I've literally found team members sleeping in their cars in the parking lots.

CALDWELL: Marshall says she helps them, but not with company resources. It's a fairness issue, she says. Instead, the company puts on fundraisers with proceeds available to employees.

MARSHALL: I mean, you can easily raise 25,000 or $20,000 from bringing your suppliers in, doing a golf tournament, putting the excess money that you make in the bank, and letting people get grants when they need it.

CALDWELL: Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation and doesn't have a lot of state-run reentry services. Employers like Bama are also rare. Tiffani Shaw spent five years in prison. Now she has a good job. But when she was first released, she struggled with negative thoughts.

TIFFANI SHAW: Like, I'm able to check them and make sure that - you know, that I'm - knowing that I'm a good person.

CALDWELL: Shaw says not everyone getting out of prison wants to or is ready to work, but those who are will move mountains.

SHAW: I will show up every day. I'll show up when it's snowing. I will show up when it's raining. If my car breaks down, I know which bus to get on. You know why? Because I can - I do not want to lose my job. I just - 'cause I know how hard it is for me to get one, that this is a blessing that I have.

CALDWELL: Shaw says people who really want to make their lives better should be given a chance. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Caldwell in Tulsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "THOSE DAYS ARE NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elizabeth Caldwell
Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.