Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time, Teela Mickles Returns Citizens Back to Society
Returning citizens. It’s a term used to describe men and women exiting the prison system to restart their lives on the outside. America’s propensity to incarcerate large numbers of offenders results in a huge prison population and this means a constant turnover of individuals going into and coming out of confinement. Many are repeat offenders. Keeping folks from going back inside is a major focus theses days of national, state, and local programs because the expense of imprisonment is so high and penal facilities are so overcrowded and then there’s the social cost of people who leave prison and are unable to function as productive citizens in the free world. The fallout of incarceration and the criminalized underclass has far reaching effects. It impacts families and jobs. There are emotional, psychological, physical, and economic consequences that can last generations. The emphasis today is on preparing folks getting ready to leave prision to cope with the real world and providing them programs and services once they’re out to help them find their way in that world. A place to live. A job. Counseling. A support network. Some of these efforts are by large organizations and others are by small ones like Compassion in Action in Omaha, whose founder-director Teela Mickles is the subject of this profile. She’s one dedicated lady fighting the good fight. You’ll also find on this blog a story I wrote about a larger returning citizen effort, the Transformation Project, and profiles of individuals who’ve come out of prison to lead transformed lives, including Morris Jackson, Servando Perales, and Aisha Okudi.
Nurturing One Lost Soul at a Time, Teela Mickles Returns Citizens Back to Society
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Teela Mickles is a self-described “goodie two-shoes” who’s never so much as gotten a jaywalking ticket, yet much of her life is devoted to assisting current and former prison inmates. Her work with our throwaway society‘s discarded is done as a certified Assemblies of God minister and as founder/director of her own community nonprofit, Compassion in Action, which offers pre-release and reentry services/programs.
This one-woman band prepares individuals transitioning from prison back into society. CIA operates two transitional homes in northeast Omaha, one for women and one for men. Volunteers interface with clients and their families, some as pen pals, others “adopting” inmates’ kids while mom or dad is away in prison. She works with an array of professionals in carrying out her missionary work.
She also does a program, Sister to Sister, that steers at-risk girls away from bad choices by exposing them to positive life skills and education/career opportunities. Additionally, she hosts a public access television show, Living the Life, and writes a column in Go-Ahead Entertainment Magazine.
Her work with offenders extends from pre-sentencing to sentencing to incarceration to pre-release to reentry to reestablishment. She attends court hearings, writes letters of support and advocates for inmates who “consistently work” her program. She lets the parole board know she has a place for parolees once they’re out. Once an individual is released, she works with parole and probation officers to ensure her program supports their mandates and that participants comply. Along the way, she hooks up participants with clothing, housing, transportation, jobs, et cetera.
Above all, she remembers she’s dealing with human beings, not statistics. It’s why she and others in the field now call clients “returning citizens” rather than ex-cons.
“We became weary of tagging them with the life-long stigma of ex-felons or ex-offenders,” she said. “That just drags out their sentence, which they have completed during their incarceration. ‘Returning citizens’ puts things into perspective with regard to the importance of community support and acceptance.”
Just getting the public to think about people with records and mug shots as parents with kids who need care, she said, is hard to do. So is finding volunteers to get involved in the lives of kids whose parents are locked up or piecing their lives together on the outside. Too often, she said, society is judgmental about people who’ve run afoul of the law, discounting or dehumanizing them.
Teela’s holistic approach is all about “embracing the person, rebuilding the family and breaking the cycle.”
Although never in trouble with the law, she knows something about overcoming hard times. Personal trials she endured led to a conversion that brought the healing and insight necessary to do the prison ministry she’s followed ever since.
Spend any time with her and you fall under the spell of her serene demeanor, her colorful turns-of-phrase, her devotion, her deep knowledge and her abundant compassion, which is more than a title but a genuine expression of her heart.
Little in her early years suggested the path she’d follow, except she always exhibited energy and empathy to serve others. She developed a strong sense of self in the 1950s and ’60s amongst her close, proud, large extended African-American family, the Bryant-Fishers, whose annual reunion in Omaha is attended by hundreds of relatives from around the nation. A famous “cuz” who comes in for the gathering is actress Gabrielle Union, whom Teela’s had interact with Sister to Sister participants.
Growing up in South Omaha, North Omaha, and the hills outside Council Bluffs, Teela was raised Catholic. She was a good student often showing off her fine singing voice in school and church. As a young woman she sang in nightclubs. She still occasionally sings at special events. She married early and became a mother of five children, all, like her, musically inclined. She was busy in church, school, community — serving as a Girl Scout, Cub Scout, Brownie leader, room mother, liturgical director. She seemed a contented stay-at-home-mom in a stable, happy relationship.
Behind closed doors though she suffered in “a turbulent marriage” marked by “a lot of violence and abuse.” Despite the dysfunction, she said, “I was determined to stay, to stick with it, because that’s all I knew how to do.” Co-dependency prevents domestic violence victims from fleeing. She finally summoned the courage to leave when her oldest daughter revealed her father, Teela’s husband, violated her.
“I took my five kids and never went back to that house, and was homeless for almost three months behind that.”
That wrenching break with the safe and familiar came in 1982. Her children then were ages 12 and under. Adrift, with five hungry mouths to support, her marriage over, Teela didn’t know where to turn for help.
“Because of that situation I didn’t trust anyone — mother, father, sister, brother. I trusted no one with my children. I didn’t trust me because I hadn’t a clue what had been going on, so that was on me. I felt empty and pointless. I felt like such a failure. I figured I failed my husband, I failed my children. I became a topic of gossip among my close family, so I felt like I was a bad daughter, bad sister, bad everything. I had these little kids, they’re looking at me going, What are we supposed to do? I had no clue. I was a single parent, I had never worked outside the home except for six months prior to my leaving. This whole thing was brand new.”
Scary, too. Faith became the pathway for rebuilding her tattered self.
“Even though I was a very religious person, I did not have a personal connection with God to where I felt like I could really live a life free of all this pain. I had this burn inside of me to find this God. It was a quest and the Lord did surround me with a lot of different individuals who would become significant in leading me down that path.”
She found solace and direction at Trinity Hope Four Square Gospel Church, where she attended a Pentecostal revival service and felt the call.
“I did become born again after nine months. That changed everything. The experience was a total transformation mentally, spiritually, physically, and God really impressed upon me I did count, my life did matter.”
That epiphany is the core of the empowering, faith-based message and curriculum she delivers to those coming out of prison. Not unlike a 12-step recovery program, she tends to broken people by giving them the tools and principles for rebuilding themselves and their lives in healthy ways,
Her own crucible came in 1983, when her life went from chaos to clarity. “My born again experience gave me such a peace. I had an understanding and an awareness I was not alone.” Doors began opening her to new opportunities. She got a job with a realty company, managing rental properties, including Section 8 housing. When a five-bedroom unit became available she and her kids moved in. Then, as if by providence, she landed a better job at a company seeking a black Christian woman.
The church she belonged to at the time sponsored a small choir that visited prisons to proclaim the Good News. As Teela always did, no matter what congregation her family attended, she enlisted her kids to perform.
“I have very gifted, talented children. My kids sang, they danced, they were the bomb.”
And so she took lead of the choir and of a youth group she formed to bring scripturally-based music to inmates at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women near York, Neb, and the Youth Rehabilitation & Treatment Center in Geneva, Neb. More visits to more venues followed.
“We went to different substance abuse rehabilitation centers, we went to different churches, we just kind of toured and shared the songs, shared the testimony. That’s how that door opened,” she said.
At the invitation of corrections authorities she began conducting monthly chapel services for the captive audiences in York and Geneva. These are hardened characters. She didn’t pretend she knew their life but she was sure she had something to offer because of the hell she’d been through and the healing she’d found.
“I had enough pain and enough gain that they complemented one another. I was raw enough that I didn’t make any assumptions of what I was stepping into. I knew that God was able to heal and that He’s open for everybody, and I knew that most people didn’t know that. I didn’t and I was a goodie-two-shoes, so how could someone that had a rough life know that?
“I’ve never done drugs or alcohol, I don’t even have a traffic citation, I just had a bad marriage but I’m acquainted with pain and the kind of pain you can’t get relief for from a person. I was still in a process of healing myself and it was amazing how the Lord knitted us together. They (clients) think I bless them but they’ll never know what a blessing they are to me. And that’s how ministry works.”
Embracing the person, rebuilding the family and breaking the cycle.
Teela feels her ability to relate to ex-offenders lies in her “sensitivity to the value of each person and helping them understand they are valuable in spite of what took place to have them go there. Their issues started before they got in prison.”
Nebraska Department of Corrections Deputy Director of Programs and Community Services Larry Wayne was warden at the York facility when he first met Teela. He’s impressed by how she helps inmates improve decision-making, problem-solving, conflict-management skills from a faith-based approach. “What drives her is her faith,” he said. “You can’t really know Teela unless you know that aspect of her and how she’s motivated.”
Though she mainly works with women she also assists men. She’s visited the Douglas County Corrections center, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the Lincoln Correctional Center and the Tecumseh Correctional Institution. She said in all the countless visits she’s made to prisons and jails she’s never been afraid, even when the lone female among a large group of male inmates and guards. Her fearlessness, she said, is a direct result of her faith and of the compassion she has about this population.
“I believe when God calls you He prepares you. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. Once I saw the people they were just people. In fact, my heart just broke because it was almost like, there’s another side to this story. The person that would act the worst, all hateful and mean and I-dare-you-to-touch-me or I-dare-you-to-get-over or I-dare-you-to-make-me-feel-anything, is the one I would hurt the most for because it’s obvious they hurt the most and had built up all these walls. What he or she was attempting to portray was not who they really were.”
The dignity she shows inmates is returned.
‘The men have always offered me the upmost respect. I have felt more respect and more protection walking across the (prison) yard then walking in some churches. When a man looks at me a certain way another man will check them, ‘No, you don’t look at her that way and you don’t think whatever it is you’re thinking.’ There’s just this aura of respect I’ve always received. I’ve never had any fear.” Besides, she said, “I present myself as untouchable in terms of any game playing. I say, ‘I’m here because I care and my care is for real, so don’t play with it,’ they haven’t.”
Invariably, she said, individuals caught up in the penal system carry a hurt they’ve buried deep inside. Behind bars or on the outside survival dictates they show no weakness. Part of her job though is breaking that wall down so clients can feel again.” That healing, she said, has “gotta be personal, it’s gotta be on their terms.”
“We’re constantly after validation — validate to motivate to educate. Most people want to educate first — but what’s your motivation to be educated? Well, if you see yourself as a valuable person, your goals and behavior and objectives might be totally different. That’s always the goal we’re going after.
“I don’t tell anybody what they have to do, I just present options and I turn a light on, and if they’re open to explore that light they will. If they’re scared and it’s just way too much truth for them to digest they’ll back off, but always with respect.”
She said “once a person begins grasping the root causes” of why they act out in harmful ways, “they can create their own options.”
She used to spend more time in prisons before she inadvertently crossed the line.
“Aa woman I visited in prison gave me a mother’s prayer card for her son, who was in another prison, and I mailed it to him. I didn’t know it was wrong. You would have thought I busted the system. They shut me down, I couldn’t go in any correctional facility. My heart was so hurt because the last thing I would do is break any rules.”
This happened before Teela formed CIA. The inspiration for it came after her banishment, when she received a flood of cards and letters from inmates saying how much they missed her. “All of a sudden I’d been taken away from them,” she said. The correspondence had a similar refrain — individuals got out of prison only to reoffend and wind up back inside. The recidivism alarmed and saddened her.
One woman’s letter particularly touched Teela. “I had already walked her out of prison and helped her get some clothes and connect with her kids, I thought she was doing OK, only to find out she’s back in prison for the fourth time. She wrote, ‘I’m sick of this and this and this, I believe I’m institutionalized.’ That’s when I broke at my job and started crying. I thought, I can’t help these ladies, I’m not doing enough.”
It was obvious something more was needed to sustain people on the outside. Right then in her cubicle the concept and name for Compassion in Action came to her. On a yellow legal pad she outlined CIA’s mission based on the woman’s laments.
“It dawned on me that we have to work with them before they get out — there’s too much pressure, not enough time. We have to connect with their kids. We have to get volunteer families to work with the children while mom’s incarcerated, let the kids know they are being brought into an environment of safety and education and help build some bridges prior to mom getting out. The women need practical things, like maybe job skills, education, a place to live, transportation. They need all these things in place before they get out.”
Her new ministry got its start via a U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service grant administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s family support program to provide parent education to women in prison. She conducted six to eight-week classes that met twice a week, with some 20-30 women per class.
“We had some really good results,” said Teela, who designed the curriculum.
Around this time she got downsized at her job and she used her severance pay and an education grant to continue working in prisons and to better inform herself about the population she served. “I had to learn and understand more than I did,” she said. “I got a chemical dependency counseling associate’s degree from Metro (Community College). I was 47 and it was my first time in college. I had a fun time and I graduated with honors. It’s easy to do when you know what you want to be when you grow up.”
Practicums at the Santa Monica and New Creations transitional living programs gave her “a glimpse” of what CIA would evolve to.
When the parent education grant funding ended she continued teaching classes with support from churches. But shorter inmate stays and tighter prison security meant less access, rendering the program impractical. Her curtailed prison privileges didn’t help.
But “a bigger vision” awaited. It began to be realized in 2000 when she obtained a former Uta Halee residence on Florence Blvd. to serve as CIA’s All the Way Transitional Home for Women. She recruited volunteers and matched them with clients according to volunteers’ interests and the women’s needs.
Last year she obtained a house for CIA’s first men’s transitional living program. In 2005 her work with men expanded when CIA became a partner with the Nebraska Department of Corrections providing services for the federally-mandated Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.
She insists CIA homes are not half-way houses but “places for transition for residents to get themselves prepared for independent living.” That includes making residents employable. “I network with ENCAP (Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership). They have a program for former felons to prepare them for employment,” said Teela.
She said CIA’s sterling reputation has traditionally gotten clients “right in the door” for jobs “but in this horrible economy,” when folks with degrees compete for the same entry level jobs as people with records, “it’s not working now.” She said the ladies currently in residence at All the Way “are frustrated they can’t find work. They’re way behind on their resident fees. It’s a financial strain on us as well.”
Much groundwork is laid with clients before they ever get out of prison.
“We work with them three to six to nine months prior to their release,” said Teela. “We’re able to determine how best to serve them, to connect with family members they want us to connect with, and to prepare a support team tailored to their development and interests. For example, if they’re in for a drug-related crime then we know we have to get a team together to address that piece.”
She said renewing family ties can be a sensitive thing because of abuse that occurred. That’s why reconciliation can take time and the focus must first be on recovery.
Education is another emphasis. “The GED program is offered in prison but most people don’t take advantage of it,” she said.
It’s a mixed bag in terms of how CIA participants do once they’re out of prison.
“For the most part I’ve learned not to have expectations,” said Teela. “There have been times when I thought, OK, we did this this and this and therefore this result should happen, and it didn’t happen. and it made me feel like I failed and it made me try to figure out what was missing, as if it depended upon me.” Now, she’s come to realize her job “is to plant seeds and treat everyone with respect and unconditional love, but it’s not up to me to fix them.”
That changed expectation, she said, “has helped.” It’s more realistic because in the end people do what they want to do. “You can present the same opportunities to people and some individuals will not only misuse and abuse that but they will end up back in prison,” she said. “No matter what we do, no matter what we provide, it depends on their willingness to make it happen.”
She does have her success stories and she said they all share something in common.
“Everyone that’s succeeded has a real, genuine, personal relationship with God,” noted Teela. “Their gifts and their plans had to be spiritually connected, because they tried everything else and it didn’t work. Once they recognize this is the part that makes it happen and they stick with it, they succeed.”
That was the case with All the Way’s first resident, Andrea. “We worked with her prior to her sentence, during her sentence, then when her sentence was complete she was here,” said Teela. “She had a plan, she stuck with her plan. She got a job at Creighton Medical Center. Now she’s living and working in Kansas City, and having a house built.” In another case, Teela recruited and trained a family to adopt Tracie and her three sons. While Tracie was incarcerated the family took her boys to visit her and the family did various activities with the youths. The family remained engaged with her and the boys until she was free and reunited with her sons. “In that match,” said Teela, “we crossed everything — racial, cultural, religious, socioeconomic barriers.” As Teela likes to say the adoptive family got to see the other side of the story — that “Tracie’s a great mom, she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Tracie’s earned a college degree while working as CIA’s program manager. She’s now pursuing a master’s in health and human services.
Lataunya is another shining example. “She had such little belief in herself and she accomplished so much. She got a great job, she got her own car and a three-bedroom apartment, then her own home. She was pardoned by the mayor, and now she’s trying to work as a professional in the field. An amazing woman,” said Teela.
Two men recently helped by CIA are doing well on their own. Allen manages a store at the Westroads Mall and Pierre is working and raising his three sons, who stayed with him at the men’s transitional home. It’s not often residents have their children with them in transitional homes but exceptions are made if circumstances warrant it.
Nebraska State Penitentiary
The impact her work makes isn’t always readily apparent. Like the revelation a female physician made to her.
“Twenty years ago this woman was a 14-year-old troubled youth in Geneva who had been in and out of foster care. She remembered me coming there and the ministry I shared. She stated her ‘relationship with God and sports’ turned her life around. So here she was 20 years later, my doctor! You can’t imagine how I felt at that moment.”
For a long time Teela felt she was doing her work in isolation but recent developments have encouraged her she’s not alone. “One of the exciting things happening now is the community finally is becoming more involved in the reentry piece,” she said. A driving force, as she sees it, is the federal reentry initiative. “It opened the door to invite the community in so that law enforcement and corrections were introduced to the other side of the story.”
In line with her own work, she said the new emphasis is on “trying to keep people out of prison by trying to accommodate their reentry needs.” It only makes sense, she said, because “it’s too expensive to keep people housed in prison when you can spend less money preparing them to become a taxpayer and a contributing member of the community. Agencies are being forced to consider this population as individuals rather than as a number or a label and so there’s a lot of community awareness. The community’s connecting to the fact these are people. Prior to that it was cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em. Now they’re being asked to hug-a-thug.”
The shift took some doing. “It went from one dynamic to the other and it was an education for everyone. Now everybody’s on the same page. There’s better communication between the state, county and city agencies, plus the different community groups.” Now, entities and organizations that had little to do with each other before are working together and CIA is playing its part.
She and others are working on putting more “faces in places” — having more community members visit prisons to educate inmates on things they can do to better prepare themselves for life on the outside, whether getting a GED or working a recovery program. She said in lieu of specific options many inmates cop the attitude, “I don’t see the point, I’m just going to do my time and get out of here.”
Teela trains others to serve this population. “I avail myself as a resource person or consultant in the area of pre-release, reentry and transition. We’re on the front lines with the background we have. We’ve been doing this for so long.” Society’s focus on these issues, she said, can’t come soon enough given “the prison population is growing and getting younger and the situations are becoming more difficult.”
Metro College community liaison Tommy Wilson is leading community Table Talks on reentry services and she said Mickles is one of the first persons she called to participate. “I’m very impressed with what Teela does and she does so much with so little. Teela knows where the gaps are, she’s been there, she knows what needs to be done with this reentry piece. She brings a lot of valuable resources to the community,” said Wilson, who’s accompanied Teela behind bars, where she said her reputation precedes her. “Everybody knows Miss Teela does this or Miss Teela does that — she can tell them how to get some housing or some transportation.”
Larry Wayne said Teela’s “integrity” earns her credibility inside the walls and on the street, because she’s earned the trust of people who’ve been let down before. “She’s walked a mile in their shoes, not in prison necessarily, but she’s faced up to challenges that look a lot like what they’re struggling with.” He said ex-offenders respond to her “unconditional love” and her “being there for them. They know she will follow through with them. She has a proven track record and that carries a lot.”
Networking is vital to what she does and that means attending many meetings. She also makes several presentations a year. Then there’s this Church Lady’s weekly bible study, worshiping at Sunday services — she’s an equal opportunity church-goer who explores different places and styles of worship — and monthly Christian Business Women’s Association luncheons. She estimates she works 60 hours a week. No two days are alike. Her son Mark helps her run CIA’s behind-the-scenes operations. Her other children have helped, too. But beyond a part-time office staffer and a small corps of volunteers it’s Teela’s baby. Volunteers and funds are harder to come by these days, she said. The needs are many. But Teela just keeps on trucking along.
“Somehow we make it,” she said.
She looks forward to a day when there’s more community awareness of the population she serves and their needs. She’s sure if basic values of self-worth and respect for others were more widely taught at an early age her caseload would be cut to a fraction because fewer would end up imprisoned. That’d be just fine with Miss Teela.
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