Michael Howell-El

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Daunting Employment Barriers Await Oklahoma Felons After Prison

  • Logan Layden

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Released after 23 years in prison, Michael Howell-El faced steep fines, fees and housing issues before he could start his job search.

More than 8 percent of Oklahomans have a felony background. Finding a job is key to breaking the cycle of crime and poverty, researchers and corrections official say. And a felony conviction often means inescapable employment obstacles.

Felons continue to fill Oklahoma’s prisons to near capacity. But at some point, most of them will be released and have to find jobs.

When Michael Howell-El was released from prison last August, after a 23-year drug-related sentence, he found a completely different world.

“I was totally, ‘Aw!’ Looking at the cars and cell phones, you know, technology. Because I left with big, giant mobile phones like they use in the army. And now they’re hand held with all this texting and all this old stuff,” Howell-El says.

He didn’t have long to take it all in.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Kelly Doyle, county director of the Center for Employment Opportunities in Tulsa.

“Well, in 1987 I produced a child. In 1989, she passed on,” Howell-El says. “I didn’t know. My family members all knew, but they didn’t tell me, uh, that she was deceased.”

He owed two years of child support, due immediately. What little money he’d saved up in prison was gone. There was a litany of other fees, and also the matter of a place to live and finding a job … as a convicted felon … without resorting to crime.

“Where am I going to get this money from, I don’t have a job? You know what I’m saying? So, how is an ex-con supposed to pay this with no financing, period?” Howell-El says.

Kelly Doyle is the county director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, which has offices in Tulsa, New York and California.

“It is so much to take on at once,” she says.

CEO provides transportation to interviews, teaches ex-offenders basic life skills and places them in transitional jobs. The jobs don’t pay a lot, but it’s better than just cutting them loose.

“We were proven to reduce recidivism upwards of 20 percent,” Doyle says. “And though it’s 20 percent, it translates to millions of dollars in criminal justice savings.”

CEO Tulsa opened in 2011 and is on track to assist more than 150 recently released felons in its first year. About 8,000 Oklahoma inmates will be released in that same time.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Democratic State Senator Constance Johnson says the issue is paid little more than lip service at the state Capitol.

“We talk about it. It falls on deaf ears,” she says.

There are dozens of services and professions convicted felons are in some way restricted from by state law.

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“And every time we’ve tried to bring a bill to change that, then you get into the licensure boards’ lobbies and, ‘Yeah, well, we need ours to stay this way.’ And so all the bills ultimately die.”

– Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City)


Some make obvious sense: Bank officer, carrying a firearm. Some don’t, like cosmetologist and funeral director. It can be difficult to even get a drivers license.

Sen. Johnson calls the Justice Reinvestment Initiative signed into law earlier this month ‘inadequate,’ but Doyle says the measure could allow CEO to expand, through a new requirement that felons receive nine months of supervision.

“We can’t enroll people into this program unless they’re on supervision, and less than half of the people in the state have supervision when they get out,” Doyle says.

That pleases Michael Howell-El, who was able to get a stable job at a Tulsa Mexican restaurant with CEO’s help, can afford an apartment, and hopes to one day open a restaurant of his own.