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Incarcerated women get a second chance through TEEM

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Myra Brooks, Tina McAtee, and Shelia Jackson work in a kitchen at TEEM in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Myra Brooks, Tina McAtee, and Shelia Jackson work in a kitchen at TEEM in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015.

Shelia Jackson learned early on there was nothing quite like homemade cooking.

Growing up in her grandparents’ home in Louisiana, Jackson spent many days in the kitchen, watching her grandmother cook for her eight grandchildren.

“Nothing was ever from a box,” Jackson remembered. “Her food was from the heart.”

Cooking remains a favorite hobby for Jackson, but her sights are no longer set on family cooking. Since the end of August, Jackson has traded her gray, issued clothing from Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center for a black chef’s jacket, required attire for the culinary arts training program at The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM).

Jackson is among the first to graduate from the inaugural program at TEEM, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit dedicated to “breaking cycles of incarceration and poverty through education, personal development and work readiness training.”

“Cooking is part of me, and I love doing it,” Jackson said.

A first

Since 1987, TEEM has served more than 13,000 people in a variety of ways. In its early years, its staff helped men. More recently, it switched its primary focus to providing education and job placement services to male and female inmates three to six months before their scheduled release. Individuals recently released from correctional facilities also can enroll in TEEM services.

Lance Evans, communications director, said TEEM helps remove the barriers of incarceration and reentering society. Traditionally, participants enrolled in education programs like GED classes, but that changed with the addition of Work Ready Oklahoma, which partnered with CareerTech and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to provide programs.

Troubled by the fact that Oklahoma incarcerates more women than any other state, TEEM sought grant funding to expand programs to women, including those serving at Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City. In 2014, the ministry was awarded a $100,000 grant from the charitable organization Impact Oklahoma, which spawned new services for female participants.

Inmate culinary programs are known for success across the country, which was one reason TEEM pursued the idea with Work Ready Oklahoma. Additionally, TEEM had classroom space and a commercial kitchen ready for use.

A partnership between the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, It’s My Community Initiative and CareerTech crafted a six-week program to provide the training and experience needed for real-world work. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration also provided grant funding for needed kitchen equipment. Additionally, lessons focus on developing resumes, interview skills and behaviors for working in professional kitchens as well as interacting with the public. Graduates leave the program with certification from CareerTech and TEEM as well as a food handler’s license.

“It came together,” Evans said of the program’s recent creation. “We wanted to include the employment factor with discussing jobs, resumes and interviews. We wanted the individuals to learn effective skills and immediately be able to work after graduating.”

Employment partnerships already exist with local companies such as Buy For Less and A Good Egg Dining Group.

2015 class

On Oct. 22, Jackson, Tina McAtee and Myra Brooks graduated from the program at a ceremony featuring community leaders and Gov. Mary Fallin, who led the Special Task Force on Women Incarcerated as lieutenant governor in 2004.

With her formal training completed, Jackson believes she is on course for employment at a local restaurant. At TEEM, she researches eateries in the computer lab and is impressed by A Good Egg Dinning Group, especially Red PrimeSteak.

“Working with the best is what I want,” said Jackson, who pleaded guilty to a driving while under the influence charge in 2014. “I would love the opportunity.”

McAtee also aims for the top. Originally from Cache, McAtee was eager to “be picked” by the TEEM program because she knew it would influence her life in positive ways.

“They’ve been a mentor, but more like a family,” McAtee said.

In July 2014, she began her sentence for possession of a controlled dangerous substance. She is set to be released in six months. The grandmother admits she made mistakes and turned to drugs after her father died.

“They’ve helped me advance in my life. I am ready to go to work and for the next phase of my life to begin,” she said.

When asked what she hopes to achieve with her culinary training, McAtee replied, “Buy For Less. You can advance there, and I am open to all of it — working in the deli or the bakery. Maybe shoot for management.”

McAtee, along with Jackson and Brooks, began working for Buy For Less on Oct. 23. They will work shifts at the Oklahoma City-based grocery store chain until their release and may choose to stay on.

Not proud

Marilyn Davidson, legislative liaison with Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC), said reentry programs like the one offered by TEEM are “very important.”

“You hear it all the time. We are first in the nation for incarcerating females. That’s something we are not proud of,” Davidson said during a Sept. 16 state Senate interim study examining high incarceration rates.

In early September, there were 3,211 female inmates in state custody, which doesn’t include offenders on parole or released with GPS monitoring, he said.

State DOC statistics, shared by Davidson, reveal 94 percent of incarcerated females will be released and their average length of stay is 1.8 years. Drug-related crimes are the top offense for women, and 79.1 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.

Mohsen Pourett, director of the Evaluation & Analysis Unit at the state DOC, studies offenders and examines the causes of female incarceration. After reviewing 30 years of state records, he concluded that 50 percent of incarcerated females don’t hold a high school diploma. Additionally, a majority are one-time, nonviolent offenders.

“Could we have done something different rather than send them to prison?” asked Pourett during the senate study, attended by public safety committee members. “The ones that come in for one or two years, it impacts them for the rest of their lives. We need to look at that, make sure we are not missing something and stop sending them to prison.”

Different approach

Kris Steele, a former state lawmaker and speaker of the house, is now TEEM’s executive director. During his time at the Capitol, Steele worked to pass the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which listed recommendations for enhancing public safety, addiction treatment and mental health as well as strengthening post-release supervision programs. It also called for the state to invest in programs to help offenders find and keep employment, along with post-release transportation and housing.

The initiative, despite being signed by Fallin in 2012, was not fully implemented. However, that hasn’t stopped TEEM and other nonprofits from answering the call.

“We know that our program works because the research tells us. The research says that employment alone can reduce recidivism by 42 percent,” Steele said.

Evans said TEEM will continue to offer culinary arts and welding programs, which both get funding help from local nonprofit It’s My Community Initiative.

“We don’t want to be known in Oklahoma for our incarceration rates,” said Sandino Thompson, executive director. “We want to be known for what we did about it.” 

Print Headline: Simmering opportunities, A new culinary arts program launched by The Education and Employment Ministry gives female offenders heaping servings of self-reliance and hope.

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