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Flathead Tribal Program Stands Out For Keeping Inmates Out Of Prison

Ann Sherwood manages a new program on the Flathead Reservation aimed at keeping former inmates out of prison.
Elliott Natz
Ann Sherwood manages a new program on the Flathead Reservation aimed at keeping former inmates out of prison.

If you were plucked out of society right now, what would be there when you come back?

This was just one of the questions posed at a meeting hosted by the U.S. Department of Justice on the Flathead Reservation on Tuesday.

Federal attorneys met with tribal public defenders and officials from the state prison system to talk about re-entry: helping former inmates successfully reintegrate into their communities when they get out of jail or prison.

"What the Salish-Kootenai tribes have done here at the Flathead Reservation, it's very impressive," said Michael Cotter, the U.S. Attorney for Montana. He held up a new program on the Flathead reservation as a successful model for supporting offenders throughout their time in custody, and when they come back home.

"They do have a robust reentry program, and obviously it's driven by many, many people, it's been embraced by the community and they have a very successful rate," he said.

The Flathead Reservation Reentry program started this past January after the federal justice department gave the tribes a so-called “Second Chance” grant. It funds a holistic approach to prepare both former inmates and the community they return to for reintegration, says Ryan Andersen, tribal reentry attorney.

"At the end of the day though what we're trying to create here is trying to create a culture of reentry for the Flathead reservation."

Native Americans make up 17 percent of adults in the Montana State Prison system, but are less than 7 percent of the state population as a whole. The Flathead reentry program aims to address that, says Ann Sherwood, who manages it through the Flathead’s tribal public defender’s office. She says there aren’t many models for the tribes.

"We haven't really found a tool that's specific to Native populations," Sherwood said.

The biggest hurdle for former offenders is meeting their probation requirements. These can include getting a driver’s license, signing up for health care, getting a job and finding housing. Failing to meet these benchmarks can lead to serving more time.

Native American offenders often return to communities where affordable housing is really hard to find. They end up couch surfing, which makes it hard to stay sober or find steady employment. Some are dealing with untreated mental health issues. Without guidance, these are huge obstacles, says Sherwood.

"They also talked a lot about inability to complete sentencing conditions because you gotta get a job, get to your counselor, transportation’s a huge problem. Poverty basically is a huge barrier for people," she said.

The Flathead reentry program starts early by reaching out to offenders at the beginning of their time in custody.

Tribal reentry attorney Ryan Andersen provides legal representation at key moments like sentencing and parole planning to help offenders understand side effects of serving a prison sentence. Since January, he’s represented more than 80 clients. A separate case manager works with offenders while they’re still in custody to help them apply for jobs, Medicaid and social security. Volunteers from the tribes’ culture committees guide mediations between the offender and the wronged party. Two clinical psychology students from the University of Montana offer substance dependency and mental health treatment.

So far, the program has accepted 65 of the 235 referrals it’s received since the start of the year. That’s well more than half of the active offenders who self-identified as Salish-Kootenai, according to Sherwood, and a sign that so far, the program is a success.

"Reentry starts at entry into the criminal justice system, and that’s really been our philosophy," she said.

The way the tribes on the Flathead reservation are addressing reentry was held up as a model at the meeting in Polson, where the U.S. Justice Department’s Acting Associate Attorney General Bill Baer stressed the need for state and federal support for tribes.

"The commitment to actually making sure that the promise of justice for Native Americans, the respect for tribal lands, that those promises are kept by the United States government," Baer said.

Elsewhere in Montana, there’s been a push to better support former inmates as they leave the state prison system. About 40 percent of Montana inmates return to prison, a rate that’s held steady for the past few years. In 2013 the state launched the Reentry Initiative Task Force that’s working on bringing that rate down. The first data reflecting whether it’s having an impact is expected next year.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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