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Iron Tribe comes to Washington County

Successful recovery networks aims to rehabilitate regions ex-cons


by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Richard Mehlfelder testifies during an Iron Tribe recovery meeting. The organization, which emphasizes that its not AA or NA, instead promotes a holistic, family-oriented approach to life after prison and addiction. On a Saturday night near Portland’s Woodstock neighborhood, a small group of people from across the region gathers outside of Tremont Evangelical Church to talk, smoke and, in many cases, to compare war stories over sips of Red Bull.

As they enter the church, they are “smudged” — anointed, in a sense, by gentle wisps of white sage smoke — in a nod to a widespread Native American tradition of cleansing negative energy. Smudging is believed to provide a fresh start, and the symbolism is not lost on the members of Iron Tribe, a recovery network for ex-convicts looking to transition from prison sentences to parole.

Inside the church, a standing-room-only crowd of about 180 people from across the region gathers around a drum circle in the middle of the room. Just after 6:30 p.m., Howard “Bear” Cubbedge opens the weekly meeting with his own callback-style ritual of solidarity.

“How many people, like me, have been incarcerated?” Cubbedge addresses the crowd. “How many people, like me, have a dual diagnosis?”

As in any proper tribe, there are many rituals here, some of which borrow from Native American influence, some which might seem, at first, like meeting agenda items: An opening group prayer to a higher power. “Hug-arounds.” Then there are announcement of the past week’s victories within the group, including a birthday and one member’s move to inactive parole.

Then Little Buffalo Furlong presents a talking stick of sorts and opens the hope and recovery circle. The spry, energetic man of Apache descent serves as the group’s designated “spiritual leader.”

“This isn’t NA. This isn’t AA. This is the Iron Tribe way,” Cubbedge is quick to remind the group. Still, many of the evening’s activities have roots in support group traditions: repetitions of affirmations and personal testimonials.

But Cubbedge prefers to think of the weekly gathering as “a support group for people in support groups.”

A woman in a yellow hoodie stands and introduces herself as an addict.

“Thanks for allowing me to give back what was freely given to me,” she says. She tells the crowd she’s walking through death. Her aunt passed away the night before, and her grandmother died nine days before that.

“I’m still clean today,” she says. “I’m not gonna say that I’m happy right now.”

A man who completed Volunteers of America’s addiction treatment program announces his six months of sobriety, and said, “Tomorrow I spend the day with my daughter.”

Some have 13 days of sobriety; others 17 months.

One of the group’s founding members speaks about the stress of seeing his alcoholic father, then describes with gratitude that some days, the biggest stress factor in his life is picking out carpet for the organization’s newest facility — in Washington County.

Cubbedge’s hope is that Iron Tribe’s newest transition house in Forest Grove, which opens this month, will be the first of a fleet of such homes in the area.

“So many of our members have been through Washington County corrections, so there's a natural kind of feeling for a big group of us that want to go back. I got my first — well, only — Measure 11 from Washington County, and I want to give back to a community that we took so much from,” he says.

Revolving door of recidivism

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Iron Tribe cofounder and leader Harold Bear Cubbedge hugs an associate before a recovery meeting. Bear emphasizes spirituality and family in helping former addicts and prisoners transition back to normal life. When Iron Tribe opens its first residential facility to serve Washington County parolees, it will be serving a region that houses nearly 19 percent of the state's total inmate population. The organization hopes to lower the area’s recidivism rate: Statewide, 26.5 percent of parolees return to prison within three years of release, versus only 4 percent of Iron Tribe members.

Iron Tribe bills itself as “a bridge to healing” that addresses both the psychological and practical barriers to successful re-entry. In addition to its transitional housing, Iron Tribe provides employment opportunities through two of its own businesses: the Iron Tribe Eatery, located downstairs from the group’s Clackamas County offices, and Iron Tribe Auto Glass.

Fittingly, the tribe formed among repeat offenders. When Iron Tribe first took shape in 2008, many of its founders were themselves still incarcerated.

Today, many members, like Jesse Robinson, describe their rap sheets in terms of arrest cycles — recurrent. Monotonous. Familiar.

Cubbedge recalls his own “revolving door of recidivism,” and a total of 18 years of his life he spent incarcerated.

“I was trying to make it on my own, and I kept falling on my face and walking this little trail inside of an eight-by-10 cell that was worn in the ground,” he says.

Cubbedge recalls that one day, he was simply tired of tragedy. He had spent a decade at Oregon State Penitentiary, and he had watched his family grow older from a distance. Instead of being at his father’s deathbed, Cubbedge said his goodbyes over the phone — and in front of a corrections lieutenant. He once received a note that said simply, “Your grandmother died. Call home.”

Standing together

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Little Buffalo Furlong, holding the talking stick, talks about his own experiences, while also giving advice to the participating recovering addicts during a weekly Iron Tribe meeting in an old church. The idea for Iron Tribe began to take form as Cubbedge and fellow inmate Shawn Bower counted down the time until their release from the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. Bower’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they start attending an in-house support group, simply to get out of their jail cells for an hour, landed them in Dual Diagnosis Anonymous — and Cubbedge first became aware of the unique interplay between substance abuse and mental illness.

Cubbedge’s own story reflects the complex psychological factors that can contribute to a seemingly unbreakable cycle of incarceration: He used crime to support his own drug and alcohol dependencies, which he has since realized were coping mechanisms for a deeper issue: his own chronic depression.

“You have to treat the mental health piece and the addiction piece at the same time if you’re actually going to have a chance,” Cubbedge says. “I introduce myself in recovery meetings as ‘quadruple diagnosed’ — and there might even be another one or two hiding behind the scenes.”

Cubbedge is currently vice president of Dual Diagnosis Anonymous of Oregon.

Ed Howard was placed in the same transition program as Cubbedge as they prepared for release form Columbia River Correctional Institution. He saw that Cubbedge and Bower were determined to create a more general recovery network to support those on parole.

“It was just a different, unique way of getting people to be a part of the community instead of a burden on society,” Howard says. “You walk out (of prison), and it's kind of this big letter ‘F’ that's put on you.”

As Iron Tribe blossomed, the organization embraced much of the accepted wisdom that support groups and behavioral psychology had to offer. There was one piece of conventional knowledge, however, that the tribe rejected.

“They say they don’t want you to hang around the old crowds,” Howard says. “Well, we’re proving that wrong. Because (Cubbedge and Bower) were the people I was involved with in the institution. And we’re doing something right.”

“We wanted to keep the same people in our lives,” Cubbedge adds. “It was about keeping people in our lives that understood us. And people that could hold us accountable. People we could share our pains with, our joys with.”

Cubbedge recognized that there was a significant “de-conditioning” process that each ex-con must undergo.

“You learn to think certain ways, you react certain ways, you have to live in prison, and because of the harshness of that environment, you can't show emotion,” he said. “And so in Iron Tribe, we're big believers in shedding that old skin. If I'm in prison and you violate my space, I have to do something. If I'm here in the community and you violate my space, I want you not to be in my space, I prefer you not to be in my space, and I can leave. It's a very demanding life. And so we decondition with each other, and we talk about it freely in our open recovery meetings.”

This is how Iron Tribe was born: “Iron” is a nod to members’ familiarity with life behind bars, and tribe, Cubbedge explained, because the group is like family.

Serious street cred

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Iron Tribe members gather prior to the start of their recovery meeting in Southeast Portland. Upon entering those that choose so, smudge, a Native American-founded method of cleansing. The peer support network quickly became more organized, and Iron Tribe focused on creating a cluster of transition homes. Currently, there are nine such facilities serving 80 members in Clackamas County. A few of these homes accommodate women and children, a necessity considering that last year alone, Iron Tribe boasted 14 reunifications, or restored custody between paroled parents and their children.

In the process of creating sober housing for fellow former inmates, Cubbedge and Bower saw Iron Tribe become a legal and advocacy resource. Peer support specialists who had been through the process of court dates themselves, or who had experience meeting Department of Human Services standards in order to reunite their own families, had a lot of advice and support to offer.

"We basically just meet people where they're at," peer support specialist Jaclyn Bell explains. "We walk with them and help with the barriers they're struggling with."

“I think we're a voice for women who are coming out and don't have a voice on their own,” she adds. “Whether they're coming out of prison or coming back from a relapse, and they're not able to talk on their own or stand up for themselves, we get to advocate the positive and the negative.”

Bell has seen that it’s not always drugs and alcohol that act as stumbling blocks in the recovery process — sometimes it’s a “boyfriend relapse,” or a parole violation. Regardless, peer support specialists work with members to avoid recidivism.

This kind of solidarity is essential to someone who feels especially disempowered and without options, peer support specialist Reina Garrison explains.

“They feel like a number,” she says. “The system is big, and you're just one. So a lot of times people don't have support from family, they burned bridges or don't have family, so it's important for a person's self-esteem to be validated, to have support, to know that they're not alone. To know that they can accomplish that and have someone standing there with them walking with them.”

Cubbedge confirmed that representatives from Iron Tribe attended 104 court hearings in 2012 in support of members.

Culture of accountability

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Iron Tribe members fomr a drum circle prior to the beginning of their recovery meeting, as a way to bring energy for the night. Judges have begun to take notice when citizens come to court with Iron Tribe members in tow, Linda Hammond, interim director of the addiction and mental health division of the Oregon Department of Human Services, observes. Hammond praises Iron Tribe for not only operating on a shoestring budget, but for being a “humble” organization.

“They’re all in there because they’ve been through the system, so they have a really strong ability to relate to the people they’re treating,” Hammond says. “They have a culture of success, of belief in each other and what they can achieve. But they also have this culture of accountability. They are really about early intervention, but because of who they are, they can really hold each other accountable.”

Katie Simpson attended a recent Saturday night open recovery meeting with her father, himself a recovering alcoholic, in tow.

Ten months ago, Simpson was estranged from her parents and her children. A decade-long regimen of pain pill prescriptions made her addicted. When her family refused to support her substance abuse, she found herself "dabbling in pretty much anything" in front of her in order to numb the pain of losing custody of her children.

Simpson was getting the better of her addiction through a treatment program at CODA, but getting back into her children's lives proved more difficult. On the advice of a contact at Rose Haven resource center, Simpson wrote a two-page letter about her situation and addressed it to Iron Tribe.

"They called me within minutes," Simpson recalls.

Iron Tribe ultimately got Simpson an emergency bed in one of their transition houses. When Simpson had her initial court date to begin the process of reuniting with her children, Garrison stood with her in court and spoke positively on her behalf.

“On my next court date, (Iron Tribe) is going to be filling that room up, top to bottom, with people to support me. So I have no doubt that I'm gonna get there,” Simpson says.

For more information about the organization, visit the Iron Tribe website.

See also: Oregon Department of Corrections Inmate Population Profile as of April 1, 2013



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