Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Daunting Employment Barriers Await Oklahoma Felons After Prison

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.

“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.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.


  • Milkhomber

    Mr. Layden, I just saw a report on Privately run prisons. Bottom line they require quota of imates, so more people will be going to these facilities just to meet these imposed QUOTAS.

    Bobbyh Hernandez

    • Logan

      Very interesting! It’s such a complicated issue. Sure, private prisons can help ease the burden of state-run facilities, but is having more space really the best solution to Oklahoma’s overcrowding problem? We’ll find out and be do a report on the impact of private prisons in just a few weeks.

  • Mary

    I am sure that it would take more funding, but it seems that it would be more beneficial for the incarcerated, as well as society in general, if the inmates received more rehabilitation, learning a trade while incarcerated. Possibly the vo-techs could start an experimental program to teach them in plumbing, welding, electrical work, so that when they were released they could better adapt and become valued members of society. As they learned the trade while in prison, under supervision, they could even be maintaining the prisons, etc. or other state facilities. It sounds like a win-win situation. “Give him a fish, or teach him to fish…”

    • Logan

      Mary, thanks for the comment! Funny you should mention in-prison training as a way to help those about to be released back into society. I’ll have a story about that very thing next Thursday. There are programs in place, and they do help, but as you say, the related agencies would need much more funding to be able to implement the programs on the much larger scale it would take to make a

      • Logan

        big difference.

  • Tiwtterbug

    Tell me about it! I didn’t even go to prison, but I have a felony record. My situation doesn’t really matter to anyone, but I can say it was a first offense and that I never lied or tried to get out of it – which is probably what got the book slammed so firmly in my face. Guilt would still have followed me in life wherever I go if I had no sentence at all and I wasn’t about to lie about the whole thing.

    As is, I got 7 years of probation on a suspended sentence in 2006. I got off of the community sentencing part of the probation in 2008 and was fully unsupervised by the end of 2009. I had enrolled in college that year and graduated in 2011. I think what finally got them to consider letting me off of the probation end after paying $70 a month the whole time I was on community sentencing and $50 until the end of the supervision (plus court fees/fines) was when I finally went into their office and asked exactly what other services they could provide me with to help put my life back on the right track. There was no answer, as a suspended sentence never goes away without a good fight (which I have been informed MUST involve an attourney by the D.A.’s rules in the county I live).

    So here I sit, someone who worked hard to try to make right the wrong that I have done (paying the victims of my crime back personally, as the court did not order them a full amount for the “damages” I had done, and they are my family) by trying to prove that I can be a productive citizen. I thought a college degree would help… nope, it just creates debt and frustration. I am rasing my four children on my husband’s meager paycheck and we cannot afford to pay anything toward our college debts, etc. because no one wants to hire ( he doesn’t have a record, but has a difficult line of work for hire – my degree is in IT/Networking and should have plenty of available positions).

    It’s crazy and it’s really more than most people would be able to handle without losing a grip on the positive things in life. next year my 7 years will be up, and I am praying that i wll be able to come up with some money to pay an attourney to help drop this case, and even then praying that the money does not go to waste.

  • any contact info for this organization? interested for my brother?



  • Caroline Roland Vaughn

    I have been reading and doing a lot of searching about jobs and convicted felons. I am a felon from another state and it has been almost 10 years since I was released and I have gone from one job to another trying to find the right one. Well I guess there is not a right or wrong job. For the past 2 years I have been trying to get a job at places that are suppose to be felony friendly and then I find out that they are not. That’s really messed up. So now I am hoping to get a job back working fast food and that is not what I really want to do, I have done fast food off and on for years and I am just sick of it. I have a diploma in Animal Science and my certifications for Medical Transcription and all, but with my conviction no one will hire me. And the reason i have not pursed either of those because most vet offices are snobs and same in the medical field. Not trying to be judgemental, just stating the facts. I have been in Oklahoma now going on over 5 years and I am fixing to lose all that I have, I did my time just like anyone else and I am still having to pay for it. That is not fair!!! The more I learn about this state the more I hate it!!! If I can get a job I can get this expunged, but without a job I can’t and that really makes it even that much harder. How is someone suppose to make it in this Country if we can’t even work. They should have just lined us up in a firing squad and pulled the trigger, cause they don’t realize that they are killing the AMERICAN DREAM!!!! I have a gift with animals and if you won’t give me a chance to show you what I can do then there will be more loss than prevention. Rant over.

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