Independent Record: Flathead Reservation program helps former inmates reintegrate

A new program on the Flathead Reservation is helping people who are released from tribal jail or the state prison adjust to life after incarceration.

There are many “collateral consequences” people deal with upon their release — inability to find a place to live, struggling to get a job and issues getting drivers licenses reinstated, for example.

The program is the first of its kind in the state and works to help tribal members who are returning to the Flathead Reservation from tribal jails and Montana Department of Corrections facilities.

“For years we’ve been having tribal members who are incarcerated at the Department of Corrections who are screaming for help,” said Ann Sherwood, managing attorney for the Tribal Defenders Office of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation. “They’re reaching back home to the reservation saying ‘Help me establish myself back home.’ It’s that connection to our community that people are longing for while they’re gone.”

The Flathead Reservation Reentry program, which started in the last few months, is run by the Tribal Defenders Office on the reservation. It has 14 employees that work on both civil and criminal issues, as well as clinical psychology trainees and other support staff.

One of the most in-demand services is working with people to get their driver’s licenses reinstated. Sherwood called that “a huge re-entry issue.” Since 2014 the defenders office has helped at least 30 people with license reinstatement.

Ryan Andersen, a reentry attorney with the office, has started meeting with prisoners in the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge to discuss parole and ways inmates can get help after they’re released.

“We establish communication with the inmate so we can identify if they are the target population and create a rapport with them and understand what services would benefit them for reentry,” he said. He also connects inmates with help to with finding housing, sign up for Social Security and more.

Reentry case manager Crystal Matt meets with people who have already been released and come into the office. Soon she’ll start meeting with inmates at the tribal jail on the Flathead reservation.

“They could be on parole right now, or maybe they have just gotten out of the tribal jail,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out their picture at this moment. If it’s a job, what are your barriers to getting a job? Is it transportation, is it because you have kids at home and you can’t leave?”

Matt said it’s not her job to solve problems for people, but to show them options, like a bus program that travels the reservation or the transitional living center run though the Tribal Housing Authority.

Housing is something many people who are recently released from jail or prison struggle with, Sherwood said. Some who have had substance abuse problems in the past might only be able to stay with family who abuse drugs or alcohol, creating the opportunity for relapse. Getting into tribal transitional housing is difficult.

“It’s a barrier because when a person is making a parole plan it’s hard to commit to a transitional living center on the reservation because they won’t accept people while still incarcerated,” said program director Susette Billedeaux.

The program uses clinical psychology trainees who are candidates at the doctorate program at the University of Montana to do assessments with clients to create rehabilitation plans. It also offers cultural mentoring with volunteers from the community.

“Cultural connection is a huge need people are citing when they come back to the reservation,” Sherwood said. “Making that connection can really assist with success.”

In 2009, the Tribal Defenders Office decided it needed to start addressing people who were cycling through the legal and jail systems and who were suffering from mental illness and other co-occurring disorders. They got a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to implement a mental health program that lead to a lower recidivism rate of less than 50 percent among the clients they served.

Montana’s most recent overall recidivism rate, for male and female inmates released from prison in 2011, is 37.1 percent, according to a 2015 DOC report. Figures for just the American Indian population weren’t broken out in that report.

After that grant ended, the office applied for technical assistance from the Bronx Defenders, a contracted New York City public defender that focuses on a model it calls holistic defense. The group says that by focusing on underlying issues like mental health, they can better help clients.

American Indians make up about 7 percent of Montana’s population and 17 percent of people under DOC supervision. Based on self‐identification, a snapshot of the male and female prison population taken in mid‐2014 showed that more than half of the 496 Montana Native Americans at that time were members of the Salish‐Kootenai (93), Chippewa‐Cree (91) and Blackfeet (79) tribes, according to a 2015 DOC report.

The recidivism rates among male offenders leaving prison in 2010 and 2011 were 36.2 percent and 38.8 percent, respectively.

“Tribal people are over-represented in the state Department of Corrections, Sherwood said.

The defenders office employees spoke Wednesday to the Montana Reentry Initiative Task Force, which is looking at reentry for the the larger prison population. The task force was formed by House Bill 68 in the 2013 Legislature and was assigned the responsibility of examining and implementing programs to bring resources into prisons to help with reentry preparation, develop partnerships with services that provide mental health, chemical dependency, employment, housing, health care and other treatments, consider victim concerns and collect data on reentry to provide to the Law and Justice Interim Committee.

By Holly Michels

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