Oklahoma has struggled to implement effective re-entry programming that reduces recidivism and prepares justice-involved people for the workforce. Christie Luther – Director of R.I.S.E. – sought to change that. R.I.S.E. is the first-ever school of Cosmetology located inside an Oklahoma prison. We asked Christie about R.I.S.E. and why she feels it’s important to train justice-involved women for success.
OCJR: What is the RISE Program?
C.L.: R.I.S.E. PROGRAM INC is an acronym and stands for Re-entry Investment / Student Education. We are Oklahoma’s 1st Cosmetology school in a women’s prison and we also provide wrap-around re-entry services and resources.
OCJR: Which facilities do you operate in?
C.L.: Currently, our school is located @ Mabel Bassett and we are beginning to have discussions about establishing a 2nd school @ Eddie Warrior.
OCJR: Can men participate in RISE? If not, are there any future plans to incorporate barbering as part of the RISE Curriculum?
C.L. Currently, we only provide services for incarcerated women and women who are re-entering society post-release. We would love to offer a Barber crossover curriculum at some point within the next 2 years but at this time we do not offer barbering. We do agree that this would be a good program for incarcerated men also; however, we feel that our mission is to work closely with the women we teach daily and to bridge the gap by providing the same familiar mentors after they are released.
OCJR: Why is it important for justice-involved people to have a career plan coming out of a period of incarceration?
C.L.: I find that it is imperative to have a career plan in place prior to re-entry because it gives them hope, security, and the confidence that they will have a better chance at success and not the fear of recidivating. Solid employment prior to release, eliminates unnecessary worry about their ability to pay their bills, have food, and pay fines and fees and the on-line job search in a technology driven society for someone who has been incarcerated for decades can be overwhelming.
OCJR: Which salons do you partner with for post-incarceration hiring?
C.L.: We partner with Great Clips (statewide), Sports Clips, and a few SuperCuts. We also have opportunities at a few Cosmetology schools if they are Master Instructors.
OCJR: Do you teach other life-skills besides cosmetology?
C.L.: We do teach other life skills besides Cosmetology. Budgets, resume building, mock interviews, business start up, Financial Peace University classes, professional skills, vocabulary, creative writing, also class presentations, and student teaching. Once they are released, we will also offer other life skills as part of our Transitional Housing requirements, mentors, spiritual growth, technology, Boundaries, healthy relationships, and parenting classes.
OCJR: Why is it important for women who are incarcerated to participate in a program like RISE?
C.L: I think it is important because it helps them to earn their own success. We provide classes and it is up to them to study and do the hard work. It is also up to them to maintain their license and plan for their future. For many women this is the first time they have accomplished anything that they can call their own. It instills a sense of accomplishment and personal pride, it allows them the opportunity to be self-sufficient and live a life that they can regard as a normal job inside of one that might lead them back to old lifestyles or to criminogenic behavior. I think education and employment is crucial for their success and helps remove the felon and poverty labels.
OCJR: What are the criteria to get into RISE?
C.L.: The criteria for our program is: Level 3 /4 (good behavior), be able to pass a UA, misconduct-free, they must have a GED or HS diploma, a 2 page essay about what they will do with the opportunity, an outside resource source mailed directly to me, and we have a 70/30 rule: meaning-70% of participants will be released within 5 years and 30% are able to participate even with more time to serve (however, it varies depending on individuals that apply for the program).
OCJR: What do you want people to know about your students and the program?
C.L.: I would love for people to know that our students are moms, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers. They are straight -A students, we have 0% recidivism rate and 100% state board exam pass rate. They study physiology, histology, chemistry, electricity, anatomy, skin and nail diseases and disorders, and etc. These women are strong, brave, fearless, smart, funny, kind and determined to have a better life for themselves and their children. None of us wants to be judged by the worst day of our lives and that given all of their hard work and dedication, they are rightly deserving of a second chance. It is a privilege to witness these ladies working, living life, enjoying their kids, getting married, buying their first car ever, getting their first apartment, paying rent, and all of the other things they are experiencing for the first time. I feel like a proud mom and our program is more than Cosmetology, it is about helping usher someone back into society, walking out the tough stuff with them, and being a trusted person that they can count on. It’s like discipleship, teaching them how to live life without addiction, abuse, or criminal behavior. Our program is a 501c3 non-profit that receives zero money from the state of Oklahoma or the government. We are debt free and are completely funded through private donations and grants. We are hoping to establish our own Cosmetology school outside of the prisons to work together with Drug Court as a Diversion school.
OCJR: What policies or law changes would support your students and ease their reentry to society?
C.L.: Although the grads get achievement credits to help them, I’d love to see laws or policy changes that would lighten the load on their fines and fees if they graduate with skills, vocational training, a program or college. Or changes that would possibly allow them to get their driver’s license reinstated because of their hard work; like a reward system. I would also like to address the issue of the Pay For Success program that doesn’t quite have an application or process for accessing funds in the state account for those of us who are non-profits and could greatly benefit by producing reentering citizens who do not recidivate. Currently, I have 25 released graduates and 87% are working in our industry and not one has returned to prison since we opened March 27, 2017. Why isn’t there a disbursement and application process to access those funds when we have a clear track record of successful graduates?