Bear and the Story of Iron Tribe

Do we throw people away in our prisons? Do our prisons make it impossible for inmates to recover and reenter society? These questions bothered me after I saw a disturbing photo exhibit of inmates across our country at Pacific Northwest College of Art in the Pearl last fall. The eyes of those men and women haunted me, exuding defiance, tragedy, or perhaps a less-than-human soul. Harold Cubbedge, known as “Bear,” the Executive Director of Iron Tribe and an advocate of criminal reform. Under his guidance, the recovering human souls of Iron Tribe are living solutions and are creating a first-of-its-kind humanizing community that is giving back right here in our midst.

To begin with, will you summarize some factors that led you toward a life of drugs and crime?

Dad disappeared when I was six, after my parents divorced. I started using marijuana and stealing at age twelve, unable to deal with pain and anger. In high school, my best friend died in a car accident and I added alcohol to marijuana. Through high school I continued using and stealing, but was never caught.

Was there any help for you after your friend’s death?

A Catholic priest, Father Grosso, influenced me to stop using for a while, to focus on my tennis and use it to get educated. I secured a scholarship at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

Tell me some more about your background.

My family were educators, people of faith. I was a good student, great at tennis, and a leader among my peers all along, since junior high. In college I discovered compassion for kids with no dads, as a Big Brother to some Asian-American kids. Their mother made delicious egg rolls and my dorm room became an egg-roll factory! But the college shut my business down when girls living above me complained. The funds I earned went for alcohol and cocaine. I pretended cocaine was recreational, but it was addictive—and crime along with it.

Did you recognize your addiction?

One day at college, I looked at myself in the rear view mirror and said, “Man, you are addicted!” I didn’t know I was also depressed. I just knew I couldn’t stop. After two years of college, I left to try the egg roll business in Florida. I thought changing locations would change my life. The problem was, I showed up. Two years of barely breaking even couldn’t compete with addiction, so my partner got the keys to the business. I went back to college at Florida State University.

How did you get there?

I borrowed a racquet, entered a Walk-On Tennis Tournament competing for a full scholarship, and won! I started playing tennis and using crack. It took a strong hold on me. I fell back into crime.

So, returning to drugs and crime became a pattern quite early?

Most ex-cons start addictive patterns early. Each story is unique, but using drugs usually leads to addictive behaviors and criminality.

Was there a significant event, an ‘about face’ opportunity for you?

I got caught the first time when I was twenty-two. I tried to fight eight policemen and hurt two of them pretty badly. One bludgeoned the back of my head with a flashlight. I woke up in the hospital with eight charges against me. I was sent to Lake Butler Prison [North Florida Reception Center] in Florida, and got out in four and half years on good behavior.

What was Lake Butler Prison like?

Brutal! Every sort of hardened criminal was there. They really scared me. I saw many people die. I made sure my mother and uncle visited regularly. If you had no visitors, it got around, and you were marked out to be killed. There were no rehabilitation programs. Everything was calculated to make us suffer. I was on the chain gang. Daily, we baked in our own sweat and were severely dehydrated. When we got our ten-minute water break, most men ran, gulped the water and vomited it up in seconds.

Did anything positive happen there?

Chaplain Durant was a great counselor and treated me like a human being. I read the Bible in the chapel—my only respite, and the only air-conditioned place for inmates.

What happened when you got out?

An opportunity to sell meat brought me to Portland in 1994. After a short taste of normality I was drawn back to drugs, to crystal meth, and was soon caught again. This time I was sentenced to almost eleven years for using and more serious crime and served in various prisons, including nine and a half years in Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in Salem.

Was OSP like your experience in Florida?

No, because I found all these great rehabilitation programs. I started changing thanks to the “Freedom Program” at Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) that offered treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and for emotional/mental health—cognitive behavior therapy— through counseling and group discussions. These treatments really made the difference in our lives, but were cut in 2008.

The program essential to your rehabilitation was cut?

The Freedom Program has been gone since 2009. I am a critical lover of prisons! I advocated at the Ways and Means Committee at the state capital earlier this year to reinstate it and for there to be no more cuts in prison rehabilitation. Because of the Freedom Program, Oregon’s recidivism decreased to 22.8%—half the national rate of 44%—making ours the lowest recidivism in the country.

Explain recidivism.

Recidivism is an ex-con’s return to crime and prison. It’s measured within a three-year period after release. The national average is 44% after first incarceration, and 66% after a second.

Governor Kitzhaber is recommending to the Legislature severe cuts to Oregon’s health, education, and public safety services in the face of massive shortfalls. This could eliminate rehabilitation in our prisons by June 30th. Are you aware of the Pew Center’s Recidivism Report published in April?

Yes. It’s ironic that the report names Oregon as national recidivism leader, based on statistics from 2007, just when our legislators may cut the remaining programs that made it so! We still have a valuable industries program where inmates make a small wage and save earnings. I urge decision-makers to give evidence-based rehabilitation a higher priority. These were critical to real recovery. What Oregon once had—pastors, educators, doctors, and treatment—is what we need again in our prisons.

In your work with Iron Tribe, are you addressing this?

Yes. Where state and national statistics count violations that return ex-cons to state penitentiaries, Iron Tribe counts any violation that returns ex-cons to any jail, even for a few days. We set a higher standard because recovery is our determined purpose. Iron Tribe’s recidivism rate was 12.5% in the first year of our program, and only 4% last year. So far, there are no second incarcerations for members of Iron Tribe.

Looking back at your own recidivism, what comes to mind?

I really paid for all the crimes I did commit. I am ranked A1, mostly likely to return to crime, but I’m on a whole different path now. It’s only by Creator’s grace that I am doing what I am doing!

Before leaving political issues, what are your thoughts on privatization of prisons?

I’m against privatization. What would be the impetus for doing anything that helps people recover and not return to prison if you make your money by keeping them inside? Privatization could only mean worse conditions than prisoners have now.

Ok, so tell us about this different path you ending up deciding to go down which led to the beginnings of Iron Tribe.

At Coffee Creek prison [Wilsonville, Oregon], Shawn Bower and I were locked up for 22 hours a day. We shared our stories with each other. I shared that two years earlier I had said goodbye to my dying father on the phone from prison. We were both tired of tragedy and wanted something different for our lives.

One day Shawn said, “Lets go to Dual Diagnosis Anonymous (DDA) and get out for an hour!” We met Corbett Monica, DDA Founder, and learned most prisoners have two or more diagnoses. I wondered about mine. I knew my addictions to drugs and alcohol, but it first hit me that crime supporting addiction is addictive.

So this was a real breakthrough for you.

Oh yeah! So, I joined DDA and introduced myself then, and still do, as quadruple-diagnosed.


I learned along the way that I was chronically depressed. Today I go to DDA and CMA (Crystal Meth Anonymous). My four diagnoses are drug addiction, alcohol addiction, chronic depression, and criminal addiction.

Were there other breakthroughs that led you to start Iron Tribe?

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy! I discovered Albert Ellis’ book, The Guide to Rational Living. It urged unconditional acceptance of reality, and described demanding thinking as the “shoulds” that pervaded my own mind. I decided to turn those demands into “I wants,” so that when reality was not what I wanted I could become flexible and accepting. Learning to live with reality was the crux of the issue for me. Not accepting reality is the crux of getting stuck in addiction.

So, how did Iron Tribe get its name?

In OSP, Shawn and I agreed to stop our recidivism—the cycle of addictions, crime, tragedy and imprisonment. We looked at all the iron bars, and decided not to live behind them anymore. We wanted to associate outside with the same people we knew from inside the prisons’ drug and criminal worlds. It was important to do something new, but not just for ourselves. We wanted to help these, our people, our tribe. Iron means “from inside.” Tribe means “family.”

Another breakthrough in 2007—my doctor prescribed a new anti-depressant and in taking it only two days, a huge burden lifted off me. I had never—in all my life—felt so good! After this, it seemed Creator was lining everything up for me, including the Red Road that brought me back to Christianity and became the spiritual component of Iron Tribe.

Who else helped start Iron Tribe?

Iron Tribe was organized and began growing in prison in 2008. Outside, we have been a community organization for 22 months in June. Several Tribal Members helped me and Shawn (whom I consider Co-Founder), including, Dave Bacon, John La France, Edwin Howard, and former member and Community Partner, Charlotte Delgado. The contributions she and these others made were invaluable. Tammy Olsen is another member I really appreciate. She’s down to earth, like a right hand, and does a great job supporting me and the sisters of Iron Tribe.

What is Iron Tribe’s mission?

Iron Tribe is a community organization of ex-cons in recovery. Our mission is to help ex-cons and others successfully recover and reenter society. We believe there is a bridge to healing—from isolation, addiction, emotional issues and criminality—through a recovery process that takes each member in the Iron Tribe community time to walk over. Our way over this bridge is to take the Red Road of recovery. These are the two premises for Iron Tribe: community and recovery.

Can you elaborate on the “Red Road?”

In 2008, Creator lined us up with native spirituality— which we call the Red Road—by introducing Shawn and me to John Lafrance. John is an Ojibwe from the Chippewa Tribe of Canada and was the native circle leader inside the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI). We spent many days with native brothers and elders who shared their ceremonies with love and touched my heart with the Creator Spirit, leading me back to prayer.

The Red Road is native spirituality that recognizes mystery, a Creator of everything, and is about recovering humanness. The Red Road frees people to accept their humanness as they move toward wholeness. This path helps us recover our sense of self, deal humanely with pain, and restores our dignity in freedom without prescribing any particular religious pathway.

At the Sweats, the singing opened me up in my first adult prayer to Creator—who was God and Christ to me—and all my Christianity came flooding back! We ask Creator to fill us up with compassion, mercy, and all that Christians call “spiritual gifts”—love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. At Tribal ceremonies, people pray to the god of their faith background. I pray to Creator Spirit who gives us the power to change

What does the Sweat Ceremony entail?

The Sweat Ceremony involves heated rocks on which water is poured. Those sitting in a circle around the rocks will sweat. Then we release the toxins—hurts, crimes, negative thoughts, tragedies—onto the burning rocks. Tree sap and sage are placed on the rocks and lift a healthy scent into the steam. As we breathe it in we sing, asking Creator to fill us with health, heart and clearness of mind.

What does it take to become a Tribal Member and how many do you have?

If you are an ex-con or addict committed to recovery and reentry and you stop using drugs or alcohol and join one other recovery program, you may apply. Some make Iron Tribe their main recovery program because our support goes way beyond attending meetings. As I mentioned before, we create community. There are one hundred members, three of which are in prison. About a third of our members live in Iron Tribe houses. The others live with family, or in various housing programs.

We have three membership opportunities. Tribal Membership is for ex-cons committed to recovery and reentry. Family Membership is for their families who support this process. Community Membership is for all sorts of Partners who support our mission.

How did the idea of Tribal houses come about?

One night, walking the streets of Portland with a friend at 2:00 am, I got upset. There was no place to take him! The idea sprang up, “Get a house—a foreclosure! Turn a drug house around. Make a home for the Tribe.”

So, how many Iron Tribe houses are there and where are they? 

We have five houses, three in Southeast, two in Portland, and three are starting up in Vancouver, North Portland and Clackamas County. We take foreclosed houses, former drug houses no one wants, find a buyer who will invest in our work, and turn them into homes which we live in and rent from the buyer.

Share some benefits of living in a Tribe house.

House members thrive in an atmosphere of community accountability. We maintain a solid track record of recovery by completing reentry programs that include, establishing a positive circle of influence, developing a positive life aim, and engaging in recovery programs and community outreach.

We cultivate job opportunities, because a big stigma blocking reentry is—no one wants to hire an ex-con! This is where Community Partners come in. They believe in Iron Tribe’s commitment to recovery. We are in the process of setting up our first business, Iron Tribe Clean and Sober Security. We also promote Iron Tribe values such as, ex-cons who made bad mistakes must learn they themselves are not mistakes. We can mend and make “living amends.”

What do you mean by making “living amends?”

Many ex-cons cannot go back to make amends to people we disappointed, hurt or robbed. Instead of going back, we give back by doing it differently with each new person and situation we meet. In Iron Tribe, to make living amends is to give back by moving forward.

What is your stance on education?

We advocate for higher education. The GED is not enough. Twenty-seven of our members are in college. Oregon prisons used to offer two years of college, until the Reagan era. Research shows a direct correlation of low recidivism rates for ex-cons with college education and high recidivism without it. To save taxpayer dollars, we must again give inmates higher education!

Did you ever finish college?

No, but I’m training for the job I really want. A paralegal’s duty is critical to helping criminals understand their legal rights. My passion is recovery for more people, and fully establishing Iron Tribe is my priority. I am getting Iron Tribe ready to apply for non-profit status.

What are you doing to de-stigmatize recovering excons at the societal level?

Last July, Iron Tribe gathered forty resource agencies in Pioneer Square that offer resources and services to support people in need. The whole Tribe hosted the first-of-its-kind City of Roses Resource Festival and celebrated our new place among these organizations, many of which did not know of each other and had not worked together. Our purpose was to help them become aware of and celebrate what one another does, and to encourage cooperation and partnership between many good souls working to make Portland a safer, healthier and stronger community. It was a great day, and Commissioner Nick Fish and Senator Chip Shields came out to support.

What kind of response did you get?

Over a thousand people came out and a couple radio stations covered it. We showed the city there is a new way of life possible for ex-cons in Portland. We pulled it off, broke even, and best of all, we pulled the first brick out of the wall of stigma against ex-cons. We are human beings making a positive difference.

What is the biggest obstacle to your mission?

Funding. As Executive Director, I do the fund-raising, manage the finances of the Tribe houses, the partner networking, legal consultation, and share leading Tribe meetings with Shawn and others. I used to oversee the remodeling of the houses. Our only revenue stream is from Tribe houses. We pay our bills, but any extra funds go to making more rooms in new houses ready for members who need them.

Is the fact that you are ex-cons a problem in finding support?

The stigma against ex-cons is one of our biggest challenges. It is one of the most isolating and fierce stigmas in society. Walls are up everywhere. Daily, we build trust that ex-cons in recovery are changing and giving back. But it takes time, experience and supportive Community Partners to meet this challenge.
It’s a direct benefit to Portland that Iron Tribe’s 100 ex-con members are not doing crime. We aren’t hurting families or the community. We are clean and sober, going to school, getting jobs, paying taxes and giving back to the city.

Bear, you were a leader, good student, and great tennis player with some support along the way—help us understand—what drew you back to drugs and crime?

There is an easy acceptance of people in the criminal and drug worlds. It’s even expected that to sustain your addiction you must do crime. This “circle of infirmity” around addiction and criminality does nothing positive for your sense of self.

What happened to your sense of self when drawn back in?

Each time, I knew I was leaving my best self behind. I felt I didn’t deserve to do or be treated well. The circle of infirmity felt more accepting than the one where I must be my better self. It’s a twisted community that draws you away from others by having no expectations, no “good” to live to. Think about it, drugs, alcohol and crime are in all their lives. And they’re still acceptable!

Can you say more what that experience feels like?

The depths of tragedy and empty caverns of loss accompanying addiction seek expansive escapism. The world of crime and addiction offers a tragic repose from reality. This circle of desperation, anger and numbness from emotional pain morphs into a prison all its own, and results in separation from your spiritual self. Allowing the ego to run rampant blinds many of my people. This happened to me. A calloused skin covers the spirit and spoils the fruit of our lives, which we were meant to share. Losing your self doesn’t happen overnight, it sets in over time. The conditioning of this process kept me stuck much of my life. Today, I am in the process of de-conditioning, which also doesn’t happen overnight.

Before we conclude, can we take a look at your claim that criminality is an addiction?

Yes. I am doing research on this. Over my years in prison, I’ve gathered evidence by listening and talking with many people about crime. Even talking about it—with no drugs or alcohol involved—creates a physiological response. For me what would happen is my stomach would churn; I’d get hot sweats and feel very excited. Crime talk creates a need to talk about it more, plan it more, and anticipate doing crime again. The addictive high is experienced through countless conversations in prisons. Criminality often follows other addictions, but is worse because it is a “process addiction.”

Define “process addiction.” How is it different from other addictions?

Three types of addictions exist: problem, compulsive, and process (or pathological). The problem addict’s behavior solves a problem. The compulsive addict has chronic need of the high in her success (as in shop-lifting). The process addict gets high during the whole process of anticipation, planning and execution of behavior (crime), whether or not it succeeds.

Tell us a little more about your research.

I put in two years of research since my release from OSP in 2008. I worked with a team of psychologists at Portland State and with AA and other recovery agencies’ materials and studied many addictions.

Criminality is not formally recognized as an addiction— yet. But I make a case that the experience of criminal process addiction is symptomatically similar to another process addiction. The psychologists all agreed with me that there is an addictive aspect to criminality in itself.

So, why is it important to define chronic criminality as a process addiction?

Seeing criminality as addiction is helpful to ex-cons. A process addiction must be addressed separately for hope of recovery.

Finally, what are some short-term goals you have, for yourself and with Iron Tribe?

I’d love to be a voice in the social arena to effect change—to be a voice for Iron Tribe, for prisoners and people that suffer, to give them hope. I want to bring awareness that ex-cons in recovery are human beings who are giving back. And I hope to have rolled out a new recovery program if Iron Tribe is an established non-profit by then.

What are some of your joys?

My joy is seeing people recover. But all “little successes” are joys to celebrate. We advocate for recovering excons to get their kids back. It’s a great day when this happens. Any little success calls for celebration. We have lots of fun times—Easter egg hunts, barbecues, camping at Beverly Beach—times that build community. We call it “wide and deep” living to replace our “narrow and short” past lives. We invest in the joys of community, and laughter and fun play a big part in Iron Tribe.

Iron Tribe
PO Box 90384
Portland, OR 97290
The Recovery Network

About The Author: Mara Storm