Building Bridges of Oklahoma works to reduce generational incarceration

Sometimes, helping a person means seeing them go to jail, a conundrum that Building Bridges of Oklahoma Executive Director Gina Elias understands can be hard to wrap your mind around.

One man was wanted in five counties when he first entered Building Bridges of Oklahoma. He was able to see the need to end his life on the run, deal with the legal consequences of his actions, and work on rebuilding his life. Now, he is successful, remarried and has re-established relationships with his family. For some of their clients, going back into jail is actually a success, Elias said, because they are finally taking ownership of their actions and dealing with their pending criminal charges. Then, they can look at ways to further their education and gain employment after their release.

Building Bridges of Oklahoma, a United Way initiative, is working to reduce generational incarceration in the Bartlesville area. Children of incarcerated parents or in foster care sometimes learn different skill sets than other children, Elias said. They hear stories from their parents of how to survive prison, and they turn to the same coping mechanisms their parents had in life – addiction, pay day loans and crime. This leads to generations of families who are in and out of prison. Over 21 percent of people released from prison in Oklahoma will return within three years.

Building Bridges of Oklahoma has been working with both judges and participants to make the process easier and help clients reintegrate successfully. Some of their clients are referred by the Washington County Probations Office, who identify those who are ready to make a change in their life but just need a little extra help. Currently, 30 families in the program came to Building Bridges through those referrals. Other clients are referred by other agencies in the community.

Clients who are dealing with an addiction problem that led to a criminal trouble have a significant risk of relapse.

“What we started to discover, is that 72 hours before going in, they can be doing fantastic, and then the stress of going into the court room causes a lot of self-destructive behaviors, and all of a sudden, we’ll hit triggers and relapse,” Elias said.

Elias and the judges worked together to find a way to take some of the stress off of the clients. Now, judges allow participants to submit “mental models” in some cases, giving a clear plan showing the judges what they are doing and when. This eases some of the clients’ fears of freezing up in the courtroom.

Building Bridges of Oklahoma is also working on training volunteers to work with clients who are currently in jail. They plan to begin to lay the groundwork for their release and a successful reintegration back into society, through a curriculum that works on enhancing language skills, self-assessment and healthy support systems. Most people who reoffend get in trouble with the law in the first 72 hours after release, a Stanford study found. By creating a plan for their life after release, inmates are more likely to be successful.

 “It’s wonderful when you start to see people overcome those obstacles,” Elias said. “They just needed some support and a game plan of how to do it.”

Building Bridges of Oklahoma came on board with the Bartlesville Regional United Way in April 2014. United Way believed in their mission of initiating and motivating change to move people towards self-sufficiency in Bartlesville and the state of Oklahoma. As an initiative , they are fully funded by United Way and are considered a part of United Way.

Building Bridges of Oklahoma’s 146 clients come from diverse walks of life, each with their own story of why they need help building a better life. In addition to the thirty families struggling with legal issues, others struggle with lack of education, pay day loans that are nearly impossible to pay off and difficulties with housing.  

Building Bridges of Oklahoma helps their clients improve not only their “financial capital” but emotional and social capital, as well. Many people in poverty do not have a strong support system, which makes it harder for them to better their situation. Bridges provides allies who come alongside them, building healthy relationships and offering support. Through Bridges, families work on an individual debt reduction plan and receive training sessions to strengthen their skill sets for job placement.

“By working to reduce both poverty and addiction, Building Bridges of Oklahoma is helping reduce the factors that drive people into crime,” Bartlesville Regional United Way Marketing Manager Abigail Singrey said. “We are excited to be a part of providing resources to those working to build a better life.”