JULY 15, 2015

    Some TDCJ Treatment Programs Increase Recidivism

    Here is a copy of the Recidivism Analysis from Texas Department of Criminal Justice Prison Rehabilitation Programs, lamenting that "some of the TDCJ rehabilitation programs demonstrably make people worse."

    Which ones? Four of nine programs showed participants' recidivism increased after two years in the free world, though after three years only two programs - specifically the Sex Offender Treatment Program and the Pre-Release Substance Abuse Program, the latter of which has consistently resulted in increased recidivism since the agency began studying it - displayed higher recidivism rates.

    The two programs with worse outcomes after two years that came out slightly better after three were the Sex Offender Education Program and the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.

    The SAFP program is the TDCJ rehab program with the best results and was the only one to make a double-digit difference.


    Texas Prison Program Aims to Produce Business-Savvy Inmates

    JAN. 17, 2015

    CLEVELAND, Texas — Standing in a prison chow hall, Richard Chavez Jr. outlines his past: violent felon, former gang member, the fourth member of his family to go to prison. Then his future: owner of a mobile counseling youth service that goes where the troubled kids are.

    Arching a tattooed eyebrow, Chavez credits an innovative program run out of the Cleveland Correctional Facility, about 50 miles northeast of Houston, with helping him develop the skills needed to run a business — from character-building and how to carry himself to writing a business plan and finding financing.

    "Man, my life was just selfishness," says Chavez, who is serving an eight-year sentence for aggravated assault. "That's all my life was. I had a daughter, a beautiful little girl, and I couldn't do it. I wasn't the father I needed to be. I joined a gang. And, you know, it hurts my heart, to say that. But that was comfortable for me. That was life."

    The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) is based on a philosophy that making inmates such as Chavez business savvy will reduce the likelihood that they will end up back in prison. It emphasizes reforming behavior while also working on a broader goal of reducing the prison population.

    With 1.5 million inmates, the U.S. has the world's largest prison population. Costs are soaring at the federal and state levels.

    In Texas, it costs about $18,200 a year for each of the 150,000 inmates in a state prison.

    Lawmakers in Washington are looking at ways to reduce prison costs, including trimming mandatory federal sentences and creating incentive programs for model inmates. PEP tackles the problem from a different perspective: What happens when inmates are released?

    Since it began operating in 2004, the program has graduated more than 1,100 students. About 165 have opened businesses, and at least two are grossing more than $1 million. Within 90 days of their release, nearly all the ex-inmates had found jobs. This year, the program is looking to expand to a prison near Dallas.

    But that's not the only way to measure success. PEP's graduates have a recidivism rate of less than 7 percent, compared with 23 percent of the overall prison population in Texas.

    The cost to the state: nothing. Operating on about $2 million from private donations, PEP uses a mix of permanent staff and volunteers, including Texas business leaders.

    In Washington, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, has introduced legislation, sponsored with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that would require the federal Bureau of Prisons to offer more such programs to inmates. After a visit last year to PEP's Houston office, Cornyn called it as a model worth replicating.

    All inmates within the Texas state prison system who have less than four years to serve and were not convicted of a sex crime are eligible for the program. Those who apply face a rigorous interview process. If selected, the inmates are transferred to the Cleveland facility.

    In time, inmates essentially will become full-time business students. They will go through course work that is sufficiently demanding that, last year, Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business began awarding a certificate of entrepreneurship to each graduate. Inmates learn how to finance a business, how to market products and how to sell themselves and their stories.

    But not before they learn how to get along, and, in some cases, learn how to use a computer. With participants serving sentences that range from a few years to more than 20, tech skills vary greatly.

    To break down prison cliques and lingering negativity, the program co-opts the culture. The class gives itself a nickname — "The Transcendent 22," for example. They, the staff, and the regular volunteers also get "sweet names." Bert Smith, CEO of the Houston-based program, is "Chocolate Truffles." Some of the classmates are "Humpty Dumpty," ''Pringles" and "Instant Potatoes."

    Arturo Martinez Jr. — sweet name "Selena Gomez"— was convicted of aggravated assault and escape charges. He got his GED while in prison, and "I thought I was set," the 27-year-old said.

    But he wanted more and was admitted to PEP.

    The classes forced him to look internally and focus on the flaws in his personality. This was nothing like memorizing for the GED.

    He was critiqued by his peers. Classmates told him they liked him, but they also said they found him manipulative and self-centered. "You start finding things out about yourself you didn't know," he said.

    There are also exercises designed to help inmates put their life in perspective.

    On a day when volunteers visit the program, inmates in dark blue jumpsuits and business leaders dressed for work stand on one side of the room, behind a blue line. Smith or another PEP leader reads out a series of personal characteristics such as, "you were raised by a single parent" or "you did drugs."

    For each one that applies, participants step toward the line. By the end of the exercise, inmates and business leaders may stand shoulder to shoulder, close to the line. The idea is to dissuade them of the idea that who they are can prevent them from succeeding in business.

    Not everything is quite this serious.

    There are musical interludes. One day, a DJ plays the "The Chicken Dance" and Smith playfully orders inmates to find a business volunteer to dance with. They do, locking arms and twirling in a circle while clucking at one another.

    "Heyyyy," inmates shout.

    After a comfort level is established and computer skills are locked in, the program intensifies to 40 hours a week, focusing on business skills.

    Paired with a volunteer, inmates work to develop a business idea, determine pricing, financing and realistic growth rates. There are lessons on business jargon, how to sell, the importance of a five-year projection and so on. The process culminates with a two-day business plan contest, where inmates pitch their ideas to volunteer judges. One inmate is selected the class winner.

    This is how Chavez, "Sweet Sugar," decided to become a youth counseling entrepreneur.

    PEP volunteers encouraged him to make his own story part of his pitch. They helped him find research that showed youth counseling was a potential growth industry in the Houston area. (None of the inmates can use the Internet, so volunteers often provide market data.) Making himself mobile, going to wherever the kids need counseling, was Chavez's tweak.

    "Off the Streets Youth Counseling" was born.

    A charismatic speaker, Chavez also has a distinct look. In a Texas prison system filled with tattoos, his ink stands out because it stretches across the hairline of his shaved head and all the way down his neck and shoulders. There are tattoos over each eyebrow and all over his arms.

    He joined a gang in prison, which gave him friends and protection.

    Eventually, he said, he thought about his young daughter and pushed himself to change.

    The decision wasn't easy. Quitting, he said, meant enduring a brutal beating by former gang members. The threat only eased after he was put in solitary.

    After time in a lockup, Chavez saw one of PEP's postcards. He decided to apply. Once he got in and transferred to the Cleveland prison, the structure and the course work made sense to him right away. The mix of discipline and humor was something he had lacked.

    His story, he thought, could be an asset.

    "I've realized I have to give that away," he said. "It's not meant for me to keep. It's meant for me to tell."

    Now Chavez has a business plan. His final proposal seeks about $50,000 in funding. He wants to open in 2020, perhaps sooner if he is paroled.

    Entrepreneurship programs such as PEP are especially useful because they equip inmates with a range of skills, said Lois Davis a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation who has studied prison education programs and recidivism. "It's teaching them not only hard concrete skills on the business side of things, but also soft skills that are important."

    On graduation day, Cedric Hornbuckle, who completed the PEP program while finishing a term for drug trafficking, tells the current class, "Business is good. This program gave me discipline I absolutely needed."

    His business, Moved by Love Moving, based in Houston, is now transitioning into trucking. It also employs a handful of program graduates.

    Another PEP alumnus, Charles Hearne, who now works for the organization, reminds the graduates that they will have a network to rely on, including transitional housing in Houston and Dallas, and post-release courses to continue their business education.

    Family members watch from rows of folding chairs inside the cavernous prison gymnasium. Small children crawl up and down on chairs, giggling and crying. At the back of the room, there are buffet tables of gourmet cupcakes, high-end snacks and sandwiches.

    PEP pays for many of the families to get to Cleveland because it helps close another post-release loop. But there are disappointments. A day before graduation, one family cancels — their car broke down. While several members of Chavez's family, including his mother, do make it, his daughter has to cancel at the last minute.

    The graduation ceremony has all the trappings of a school ceremony: a valedictorian and salutatorian, class superlatives and award winners. Inmates have traded drab prison jumpsuits for shimmery, royal blue graduation gowns.

    "Pomp and Circumstance" pumps through the gym. John Wesley, also known as "Oompa Loompa," a 28-year-old serving five years for robbery who plans to open a music business, sings a song dedicated to family and teachers. The rest of the class, on and off key, provides backup vocals.

    Smith announces the winner of the business plan contest — a company that will service and maintain man-made lakes in the Houston area.

    Then, inmates are called to the stage individually and Smith hands each a diploma.

    As Chavez's turn approaches, he shows a mix of excitement and been-there cool. He pumps his fist as he walks across the stage.

    For the new graduate, opportunity awaits.

    Prison Entrepreneurship Program

    Texas Prison Program Aims to Produce Business-Savvy Inmates



    Prisons are terrible, and there’s finally a way to get rid of them

    Prison is horrible.
    It's grossly inhumane.
    It's a huge waste of money.
    And there may finally be a way to (mostly) get rid of it.

    Researchers have tested electronic monitoring as an alternative approach to parole, probation, or other criminal punishments that fall short of imprisonment — and it's been a huge success.

    To Read More on this Article, click on the Title above.

    When Prisoners Read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, It’s Pretty Powerful


    JANUARY 30, 2014

    Photo By; TAMIR KALIFA
    Inmates at the Cleveland Correctional Center listen to a presentation as part of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

    “It’s a story about the difference between the head and the heart,” says Brian Troy. The story is Crime and Punishment by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and though it was a difficult read for Troy, the themes were familiar to him. Along with a dozen other men wearing dark blue scrubs, Troy is sitting in a large concrete classroom at the Cleveland Correctional Center in rural East Texas, about an hour north of Houston.

    Everyone in the room, all of them convicted criminals currently serving out their sentences, had been assigned to read Dostoevsky’s epic as part of a yearlong course on business skills offered by the Houston nonprofit Prison Entrepreneurship Program. They’re all nodding along as Troy compares his life to that of the main character. “Raskolnikov rationalized killing this pawnbroker,” he says, describing the book’s seminal moment. “I got into this situation trying to rationalize: bend a rule here, bend a rule there, and then it piles up.”

    Read the full article... HERE @ TEXAS MONTHLY > When Prisoners Read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, It’s Pretty Powerful



    Poll: Texans Support Treatment, Rehab Programs
    Results show Texans of all political flavors want low-level offenders to pay their debt out of prison

    Posted: Dec. 9, 2013

    Texans by a wide margin support more treatment and rehabilitation programs for non-violent lawbreakers instead of prison time, a new poll showed Monday, the latest indication of a significant about-face by voters on the issue in recent years.

    The poll commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports prison reforms, showed 84 percent of all likely voters contacted favor alternative-to-prison programs for non-violent drug offenders — including 81 percent who identified themselves as Republican, 89 percent as Democrat and 86 percent as independent.

    Poll: Texans Support Treatment, Rehab Programs

    Restorative Justice A Less Costly, More Meaningful Response To Crime

    Posted Jan. 29, 2013
    Special to the Star-Telegram

    The New York Times Magazine ran an extraordinary article Jan. 6 about two families shattered by the murder of one family's daughter, Ann Grosmaire, by the other family's son, Conor McBride.

    After Grosmaire's murder, those most directly impacted by this terrible act met, shared and provided input in a restorative justice process to identify what would be, for them, a meaningful criminal justice response. The process of meeting, by all accounts, was profound for those who participated. In this case, as in many others across the country, restorative justice played a pivotal and proper role without impeding the work of the criminal justice system.

    As restorative justice practitioners, we were troubled by the article's assertion that there aren't many of these programs and those that do exist are "on the margins of the justice system." In fact, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of restorative justice programs and initiatives across the country, including the grassroots efforts of the Crime Victims Council in Fort Worth to promote community conferencing as a response to crime.

    This group is conducting a needs assessment, meeting with community leaders and volunteering with restorative justice-based initiatives like the Neighborhood Conference Committee, a juvenile justice program for first-time youth offenders.

    Restorative justice is a philosophy, as well as a set of practices, that maintains any response to harm should also include those most directly affected -- the victim, the offender and the community. It does not suggest that this be done at the exclusion of traditional criminal justice responses but that those responses employ greater reflection and more inclusivity, engage more creativity and maintain a victim focus throughout.

    Restorative justice takes many forms -- not just victim /offender dialogue as in the Grosmaire case. And by most measures, restorative justice is successful.

    Research summarized in the recent book Restorative Justice Dialogue: An Essential Guide for Research and Practice cites dozens of programs. Many of the them show higher levels of satisfaction with the process for both victims and offenders; increased trust in the criminal justice process; a greater likelihood that offenders will adhere to the conditions placed on them, including restitution; affirmative mental health outcomes for victim survivors; and decreased recidivism.

    And restorative justice usually involves far less expensive options than the traditional criminal justice system. In the Grosmaire case, a trial was avoided, and the killer is serving a somewhat shorter sentence than he probably would have received from a jury. Harder to quantify, but no less valuable, was the opportunity for the victim's family to engage in the process, ask questions directly of the killer and hear his regret and remorse.

    The economic reality is that the criminal justice system is costly. Texas is incarcerating about 160,000 offenders for $51 a day. Tens of thousands more are in local and state jails, on probation or on parole. And that doesn't include policing, courts or the cost to victims.

    Many legislative analysts have identified criminal justice spending as one of the most serious issues facing the 83rd Legislature. Never mind the human costs of a punitive, adversarial model of justice, our state and local budgets cannot continue in the current mode. Some criminal cases, maybe a lot of cases, must be handled in less expensive ways.

    Can restorative justice play a role in criminal justice? The resounding answer is yes. It can, it does and it must.

    Marilyn Armour and Stephanie Frogge are director and assistant director of the Institute for Restorative Justice & Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Social Work. Sandra Lydick is executive director of Fort Worth's Crime Victims Council.

    Read more Here


    Robert Francis, the Texan judge closing America's jails

    He's the tough-on-crime Republican radically overhauling the criminal justice system – with rehabilitation programmes

    • Ian Birrell
    • The Observer
    September 30, 2012

    The motley gaggle of miscreants shuffles into the court, lining up silently in three rows on the benches. There are some 20 of them, men and women of all ages, most with long records of theft, violence and weapons misuse, and all with hardcore drug problems. I am passed their court biographies; the top one describes a man who has spent 12 years in jail, has 26 convictions over two decades and lists his "drugs of choice" as cocaine and heroin.

    While Felin Bell's fellow convicts look like they have walked straight off the set of a Hollywood crime caper, he is a portly man in a smart check shirt who could pass as a middle manager. Almost before he has sat down, he is picked out by the judge as the week's shining star, commended for his positive attitude and sent home as a reward. "You look surprised – you shouldn't be," he is told.

    Already it is clear this Dallas court for drug offenders is no normal court. As proceedings unfold, it seems like therapy crossed with a reality television show. The judge doesn't wear a robe, seldom sits on the bench and swears a lot.

    His name is Robert Francis, a fast-talking 52-year-old Republican, a rock fan and a keen hunter who proudly showed me, in his office before proceedings started, the heads of huge hogs he has shot.

    As the offenders troop in, he warns if anyone lies or bullshits he will go "fucking ballistic". Then he discusses the difficulties of staying straight as he dissects their jobs, their families, their desires for the future. He responds to their comments with bawdy jokes, short homilies or sharp threats. "Stay positive, brother," one man is told, while another is warned: "You might think I'm crazy but I'm the crazy bastard who can put you back in jail."

    There are outbursts of applause, then cheers for a young man who looks embarrassed as he reveals he got married two days earlier. The judge tells a woman who has started helping her mother around the home that she makes him proud. "You gotta be proud, too," he says.

    Until recently, these people would have been discarded in overcrowded prisons.

    After all they were caught in Texas – the toughest state of a nation that locks up more offenders than any other in the world, with more than one in every 100 adults behind bars. Instead they receive counselling and assistance with housing and employment, although they can be sent back to jail if they fail drug tests, abscond or reoffend. One woman, a crystal meth addict, tells me the sessions in court are like walking on eggshells. But there are small incentives for those doing well, such as $10 gift vouchers or – on the day I visited – barbecue lunch out with Francis. "These people have to believe we care and want them to succeed," he tells me later. "Once they believe in me they can start to change."

    They are beneficiaries of a revolution in justice sweeping the United States, one with illuminating lessons for Britain. It is a revolt led by hardline conservatives who have declared prison a sign of state failure. They say it is an inefficient use of taxpayers' money when the same people, often damaged by drink, drugs, mental health problems or chaotic backgrounds, return there again and again.

    Remarkably, this revolution was unleashed in "hang 'em high" Texas, which prides itself on its toughness and still holds more executions than other states. But instead of building more prisons and jailing ever more people, Texas is now diverting funds to sophisticated rehabilitation programmes to reduce recidivism. Money has been poured into probation, parole and specialist services for addicts, the mentally ill, women and veterans. And it has worked: figures show even violent crime dropping at more than twice the national average, while cutting costs and reducing prison populations.

    In the process, right-wingers have allied with liberals who long advocated such an approach, detoxifying one of the most poisonous political debates at a time when US party divisions have never been sharper. "This used to be one of the most emotive and ideologically divisive issues in the country," says Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States, a social-policy research charity which is backing the initiative. "We are starting to see the triumph of sound science over soundbites.

    "There is not agreement on the causes of crime or even the purpose of punishment," Gelb continues, "but there is agreement on the solutions. Liberals and conservatives are getting to the same destination from very different routes." Now the Texan tactics are being adopted in other "deep red" republican states such as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Carolina, while well-known conservatives flock to promote the cause, including Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal and Grover Norquist. It is a Nixon in China moment. "The fact that it began in Texas has resonated around the country," says Gelb. "We hear again and again that if Texas can do it, then it cannot be soft on crime."

    Just as in BRITAIN, it has been an iron rule in US politics that candidates win elections by talking tough on crime. The result has been a wave of stiff sentencing laws which, combined with the backfiring "war on drugs", mean that the prison population is currently growing 13 times more quickly than the general population. As a result, a nation with 5% of the global population accounts for 25% of prisoners worldwide – and is spending £43bn a year keeping them there. The criminal justice system also stands accused of worsening racial inequality, with Hispanic men three times as likely to be locked up as white men and black men nearly seven times more likely. According to a landmark Pew report, one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars.

    Texas typified the trend. Just eight years ago, it had the highest incarceration rate in the world, with one in 20 adults in prison, on parole or on probation.

    The biggest deficit in state history had led to cuts in probation, giving judges little alternative but to increase prison admissions.

    In 2006, however, a political earthquake started to shake conventional wisdoms. It began when the state budget highlighted the need for $2bn for seven new prisons to accommodate a predicted 17,700 extra inmates by 2012. When Republican stalwart Jerry Madden was appointed chairman of the house corrections committee, the part of the state government responsible for criminal justice, jail and parole, he was asked to avoid building more prisons since they were too expensive.

    The white-haired Madden is an unlikely hero of prison reform. A fan of George W Bush and sympathetic to the Tea Party, he happily describes himself as "a typical Texan Republican – which makes me very conservative when viewed nationally". He admits that when he took over the committee, he knew nothing about the subject and had no interest in what has since become his life's mission. But he was trained as an engineer and, with an open mind, set about working out solutions. Perhaps it helps that he is at the end of his political career – when we meet, he is packing up his office in Austin, having announced his retirement. "I'm not interested in the feel-good stuff, I'm interested in what works," he says. "And since my job was not to build more prisons, I had to investigate the alternatives."

    Madden turned to Tony Fabelo, a former adviser to both Democrat and Republic governors, for evidence to defeat the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" lobby. Fabelo's figures were frightening: in just two decades incarceration rates in Texas had risen from 226 people to 691 people per 100,000 residents, yet other states with slower growth rates saw faster falls in crime. Meanwhile, one in three Texan inmates was back behind bars within three years. "They had created a totally broken system," says Madden.

    Fabelo told Madden to focus on short-term facilities to tackle the underlying problems of repeat offenders, such as substance abuse and mental health problems. He suggested spending $240m on these services – under half the amount earmarked for new prisons that year – and pointed out that every dollar spent in this way saved at least $2 in the long run. Each prisoner, after all, costs $50 a day.

    Madden looked at the numbers and took a leap of faith. He went on the attack, using traditional right-wing arguments to subvert those seeking hardline penal policies. "We moved the issue from one of being soft on criminals to one of being smart over the use of money. If you are keeping people in prison who do not need to be there, then that is a waste of taxpayers' money.

    "We call it the department of corrections, so we should try our best to correct people, not just incarcerate them," Madden continues. "Some people deserve to be in prison until they die, but you don't fill up prisons with people we are mad at who have done dumb things in their lives. You try to change their behaviour."

    Few typify this better than Jose Barajas. As this bulky 31-year-old man told me his life story a shy smile flashed occasionally across his face; when it did so he looked almost like the sweet kid whose father was taken into the desert and shot dead by rival gangsters. Jose was just 11 then.

    In subsequent years Jose drank hard, took lots of drugs and was determined no one would get the chance to take advantage of him like the men who murdered his father or abused his mother. "Me and my pistol was enough," he tells me. "I felt like a cowboy in the Wild West. I did a lot of robberies, a lot of carjackings, all sort of other things."

    Barajas was furious at a world that seemed unforgiving. One night, off his head at a party, he decided to die in a blaze of glory. "I wanted to go out with a suicide by cop, get them to shoot me down," he said. "So when the police came I started shouting at them, taunting them, but they refused to shoot me. I was so angry I did not die. Now I realise how selfish that would have been to my family and kids."

    Given his record, Barajas was looking at a long stretch in prison when he was arrested. Instead he is working as a roofer, trying to be a good dad and nursing ambitions to open his own tyre shop. "I always thought I was on my own and never understood all my anger," he says. "I'm not saying I don't have bad days and bad experiences, because of course I do, but I am confident I am going to make it."

    There are only two ways to cut prison populations: slow down the flow of people entering the system or speed up the numbers being released. Texas did both. Figures reveal that crime rates fell 8.3% in 2011, far outpacing national falls, with murder and robbery rates down about 15%. Property crime fell 10 times faster than in the rest of the country. Meanwhile, despite the soaring state population, prisoner numbers dropped by 2,500 last year.

    Probation services used to rely on little more than gut feelings to determine if inmates might get into trouble again. Now they use sophisticated risk-analysis tools that have cut the number of low-risk offenders who reoffend within a year from 26% to under 1%. "We kept asking politicians to listen to us," says Geraldine Nagy, head of probation in Travis County. "But I thought the idea that prison was the only option was so ingrained in the minds of so many people we would never get this shift."

    At the root of the reforms is an idea alien to many on the right: to understand more and condemn less. "The people we are dealing with are not like you and me," Judge Francis told me. "I found this a shock. I grew up in a house with married parents, both of whom had college degrees. I thought this was normal, but now I know it isn't."

    The vast majority of people parading through his court come from broken homes, failed to graduate from school, began using drugs in their teens and had children before they were 20. "These people are preconceived to have a harder path through life than the likes of us," he said. "I don't even say we offer rehabilitation. We are trying to provide 18 years of parenting in one year of drug court."

    Francis's 15-strong team deals every year with about 320 offenders, who typically spend six months in special treatment units in prison, then a year attending court several times a week with regular drug testing, followed by a decade on probation. Recent graduates include Lavoris Neal, a smartly dressed 33-year-old who grins as he tells me his check shirt, chinos and shiny black shoes cost $12 from a thrift store. He never knew his father, had an illiterate mother, was drinking by the age of eight, delivering drugs by 12 and using them the next year. "I thought this was normal," he said. "No one told me I was raised wrong, and when they did I was in tears. But I was a kid and did what I was told."

    Soon he was armed and dangerous and using PCP – a hallucinogen that leads to paranoia. He stole, shot at people, went on the run from police for months. When I ask what was the worst thing he did, he smiles. "I've not been caught for some things." Then he pulls out some documents from a folder. "Look at this," he says. "I've never had insurance for a car before."

    Now this energetic character works as a business consultant, has twins on the way with a new partner and spends his leisure time devouring political biographies at the local library. "I never want to know that person I was again," says Neal. "This was the best thing that could have happened to me. I feel like I am starting life completely afresh."

    The revolution that began in Texas and is sweeping conservative America remains in its infancy; the hope is it will also reach this country, which locks up more prisoners than anywhere else in Europe and where debate is stagnant. Whatever populist politicians say, it is far tougher to force people to change errant behaviour than it is to simply slam them behind bars. Yet all the evidence shows this approach cuts both crime and the costs of incarceration. As Judge Francis says: "What I am doing here is the most conservative thing possible. I am getting the biggest bang possible for the bucks of taxpayers and achieving something positive for society at the same time."

    The author travelled to Texas on a grant from Make Justice Work (

    Robert Francis, the Texan judge closing America's jails

    Texas Prison Population Shrinks as Rehabilitation Programs take Root

    By Mike Ward
    Published: Aug. 11, 2012

    In July, Texas' prison system posted its lowest head count in five years, even as the state's overall population continued to grow at a fast clip.

    Instead of 156,500 prisoners behind bars in Texas' 111 state prisons a year ago, the lockups now hold just over 154,000 — a drop of about 2,500, according to state statistics. Texas, which historically has had one of the highest incarceration rates per capita of the 50 states, is now in fourth place, down from second two years ago.

    Whether the declining prison population is the start of a long-term decrease or a short-lived dip is a matter of debate that will be settled only by time. Still, experts say, prison population declines are occurring in other states, too.

    "It's real. It's happening, not only in Texas, but around the country," said Tony Fabelo, an Austin-based criminal justice consultant who coached Texas officials during the 1990s as the state tripled the size of its prison system and is now advising other states on how to decrease their prison populations.

    "The challenge is to sustain the outcomes to see how far you can go in downsizing prisons. I have my doubts, but it's an interesting time for criminal justice," Fabelo said.

    Instead of sending more and more lawbreakers to prison, judges in Texas and other states are increasingly sentencing them to alternative treatment and rehabilitation programs that have proven more effective — and that cost much less.

    For taxpayers, that could mean safer communities and fewer expensive prisons to operate. For criminals, that could mean more effective programs to help them escape drug and other addictions and become law-abiding citizens again.

    A decrease in crime rates, changes in demographics and an aging state population also have a role in emptying Texas' prison beds, experts say.

    Conservative Push

    Not since the early 1990s, when then-Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, shook up the historical punishment culture of Texas prisons by opening new drug-treatment prisons focusing on rehabilitation, has such a dramatic trend emerged, some experts say.

    Only this time, conservative Republicans are driving the reforms that began in 2007, as fiscal conservatism gained the upper hand over tough-on-crime policies.

    "Policies in various states are finally catching up with what we know works," said Marc Levin, director at the Austin-based Center for Effective Justice and a leader in the national Right on Crime campaign, which promotes community-justice solutions.

    "For most nonviolent offenders, community-based initiatives are much cheaper and have much better outcomes," Levin said. "In this time of tight budgets and programs that work, this is the conservative thing to do."

    The reforms touch every aspect of Texas' criminal justice system, from the courtroom to the cellblock, including:

    ■ So-called "specialty" courts in Austin, Dallas, Houston and other cities now custom-tailor treatment programs for drug offenders, drunk drivers, veterans and prostitutes to push them to turn their lives around without going to prison.

    ■ Parole officers keep tabs on their charges with high-tech electronic monitoring technology and new risk-assessment tools to ensure the public is kept safe.

    ■ Community-based probation programs for low-level, non-violent offenders are designed to curb recidivism and probation revocations that have landed offenders in prison in years past.

    ■ Special in-prison treatment programs have been expanded over the past five years and now include more than a fifth of the state's prison convicts.

    ■ The trend toward community-based corrections programs has spread to Texas' juvenile justice system, with the closure of half the state-run youth lockups and a focus on keeping youths close to home for programs and treatment.

    New Legislation Due

    More reforms are expected when the Legislature convenes next year, with proposals to change drug sentencing to provide more treatment rather than prison time and a push to fund a 2011 law that allows Texas counties to limit the number of felons they send to state prisons in exchange for more state funding for local corrections programs.

    "We're definitely going to be looking at what works and what doesn't — and we know that treatment and rehabilitation and community justice programs work," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, an architect of many of the reforms.

    "Prisons should be reserved for the worst of the worst, the violent criminals, murderers, child molesters we should definitely be afraid of. We have a lot of other inmates in there that could probably be housed someplace else, at less cost," Whitmire said.

    In Texas, the cost of incarcerating a convict costs just over $18,000 a year, not counting medical costs that are soaring as the convict population grows older.

    Despite the enthusiasm in Texas and nationally for community-based alternatives to prison, there are limits.

    For one thing, the trend toward declining population might not hold.

    A June report by the Legislative Budget Board predicts that Texas' prison population will trend downward until 2014, when it will start rising again. By early 2015, the report forecasts the number of state prisoners could again exceed capacity.

    For that reason, prison officials remain wary of mothballing prisons because of the expense of reopening them.

    And alternatives to prison don't work for everybody.

    Sharon Padilla's family highlights that dilemma.

    The 34-year-old former Austinite, now living and working in Houston, served three years in Texas prisons for cocaine possession, after flunking out three times on probation with several stints in jail.

    "I went through programs one after the other, but nothing took," Padilla said. "Prison didn't do much, except it got me off the street. Drug court got in my business big time, and I had to get my head straight. But it took myself to want to do it."

    Even so, she said, her younger brother failed to do the same in several community treatment programs in Houston before he was finally sentenced to prison a year ago. Much the same was true with two cousins who are now doing time for gang-related drug crimes in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

    And, while political support is solidly behind community-based programs, there will always be state prisons, reserved for the worst, most violent offenders.

    "The first priority will continue to be public safety, absolutely," House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, said. "But the toughest thing you can do to some people is not send them to prison, but put them in programs that will turn around their lives."

    Contact Mike Ward at 
Twitter: @mikestatesman

    Texas prison population shrinks as rehabilitation programs take root

    Ex-Cons Relaunching Lives as Entrepreneurs

    Author; Kris Frieswick
    May 29, 2012

    Defy Ventures offers former criminals a second shot by training them to run their own businesses.

    Photo By; Miller Mobley
    A Clean Slate Through her M.B.A.-style program, Defy Ventures, Catherine Rohr is helping former prisoners, including Maliki Cottrell (left) and Marlon Llin (center), learn how to launch their own companies.

    Catherine Rohr stands at the front of a drab, fluorescent-lit classroom in Midtown Manhattan. Her 27 students, who sit crammed into chair-desks, are ex-cons whose crimes include narcotics trafficking and murder. Rohr, 35, is dressed conservatively in long black pants, a button-down white shirt, fitted jacket, and high heels. Beneath her razor-straight bangs, Rohr's kohl-rimmed eyes zero in on a man in the back of the room, leaning against the wall.

    "Are you sleeping back there?" she barks.

    "No," says the man. "I'm just not feeling that well."

    "From now on, no one in the back row can rest their heads against the wall," she orders. "It looks like you're not paying attention."

    These men are the inaugural class of Defy Ventures, a yearlong, M.B.A.-style program that Rohr created to teach former inmates how to start their own companies. For months, they have been meeting here for 14 to 16 hours a week to learn about things such as cash flow, balance sheets, intellectual property, accounting, and taxes. There are workshops on how to behave in professional settings, how to speak in public, and how to be a better parent. These men are also learning how to create business plans. In June, they will compete in a business-plan competition. The winners will split $100,000 in seed funding.

    Rohr has an interesting theory about criminals. She says that many of the qualities that made these men good at being bad guys (until they got caught, of course) are the same qualities that make effective entrepreneurs. Some of the men in this class had up to 40 employees under management. Though their merchandise was illegal narcotics and not, say, office supplies, these men developed certain business skills—the ability to motivate a team, identify new markets, manage risk, and inspire loyalty and hard work. Rohr's goal is to help these students apply their abilities to legal endeavors.

    Rohr continues today's lesson, evaluating the company names proposed by each student. "What's the name of your business?" she asks, pointing to one of the students.

    "Mine's is…"

    "What did you say?" Rohr pounces. She's a stickler for proper speech. He stops and takes a deep breath.

    "Mine is..." he carefully enunciates. Rohr smiles slightly as the man continues.

    In this room of former criminals, Rohr may be the most intimidating figure. She runs the show. It's not just because these men respect her, though they clearly do, but because part of the deal of being in this room is doing what Rohr tells them to do. In exchange, they get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And for that, they are willing to sit up straight, put their personal lives on hold, and study hard.

    This program is the type of second chance that none of these men ever thought they would get. It's also a second chance for Rohr, who not very long ago had her own—very public—fall from grace.

    At age 25, Rohr found God. She and her husband, Steve, a lawyer, began attending a church in the Bay Area. She worked as an associate at Summit Partners, a venture capital firm in Palo Alto. At church, Rohr was introduced to the concept of tithing, giving away 10 percent of her income to the church or charity.

    Donating felt really good. So good that she resolved to make $1 million a year by age 30, just so she could give away 95 percent of it.

    A couple of years later, after landing a job in New York City at American Securities Capital Partners, a private equity firm, Rohr took a trip to several prisons in Texas as part of a Christian outreach program. It was there that Rohr first made the connection between criminals and entrepreneurs. These men exhibited many of the same qualities she looked for when she met with founders as an investor.

    In 2004, Rohr launched the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, or PEP, in Houston to teach inmates basic business skills. After several months of running the program remotely, Rohr left her job and moved to Texas to focus all her efforts on PEP. She and her husband spent nearly every penny they had, including her entire 401(k), on the program. She and volunteer executives taught classes about marketing, finance, and how to act professionally. And it was all topped with a thick frosting of religion—both because it fueled Rohr's passion and because religion is an unspoken requirement for any prison rehabilitation program in Texas.

    Rohr believed God had called her to this ministry. And what she was able to accomplish in a short time struck many as miraculous. In five years, about 500 students graduated from the program. About 60 of them started businesses when they left prison. More important, the recidivism rate of graduates—at the time, around 10 percent—was much lower than the U.S. average of 40 percent. Rohr and her program received several honors for public service, including awards from Texas Governor Rick Perry and President George W. Bush.

    But everything came crashing down in 2009, when Rohr admitted to her staff of volunteers that she had had inappropriate relationships with four graduates of her prison program. "I felt like I'd been punched in the gut," says Bert Smith, one of those volunteers. After someone sent an anonymous letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which has strict policies against volunteers becoming personally involved with inmates, the department launched an investigation. Rohr says that none of the relationships started until after the prisoners were out of jail. But the department barred her from ever entering the Texas prison system again, citing security concerns. It also threatened to kick PEP out of the prison system if Rohr was involved in the program in any way. Devastated, she resigned.

    The troubles, says Rohr, started a year earlier, when her husband asked for a divorce after nine years of marriage. In retrospect, the divorce wasn't so unexpected, she says. As the program grew, Rohr traveled frequently, visiting prisons and raising money for the program. She slept four hours a night and was rarely home. "I didn't have good boundaries in terms of working a certain number of hours and then I'll be home and be a wife," says Rohr. "I wasn't living sustainably."

    After the divorce, she felt ashamed. "Instead of reaching out for help, I chose to be on my own," Rohr says. "And in that aloneness, I didn't make the best decisions." Rohr won't discuss specifics but claims that not all four relationships were "what people thought."

    The media, which had frequently celebrated Rohr's efforts to reform prisoners, pounced on the story of her downfall. The scandal became news as far away as China. Prisons Ban Founder for 'Improper Relationships,' read the headline in the Austin American-Statesman. That particular story attracted more than 60 online comments, most of them negative. "Let me guess, the greater the crime committed by the ex-convict, the dirtier the sex?" wrote one commenter. Others claimed to have knowledge of more than four affairs. "I was just bawling my eyes out," says Rohr. "They wrote untrue things—all sorts of uninformed comments. I didn't want to live anymore. I thought that I would live my whole life covered in shame."

    Before the scandal, Rohr often spoke at churches and conferences about the prison program. She would always ask the crowd, "What would it be like if you were known for the worst thing that you ever did in your life?" Now, she was in that very situation.

    At the lowest point of her life, something unexpected happened that helped Rohr pick herself back up. "I got over a thousand e-mails from people of love and support," she says, still looking surprised by it nearly three years later.

    "They were saying, 'What are you doing next?' and 'Thank you for your honesty.' Some came back with confessions of their own."

    It was far too soon, the pain still too fresh, for her to realize what these messages were telling her about the way this failure would transform her life.

    But those notes of encouragement gave her the strength to reach out to friends for support. With their help, she put the contents of her apartment in storage and got out of Texas.

    She traveled for six months, staying with friends. "I went through a period of questioning my calling, or that I could be worth anything or do anything good for the world ever again," she says. "But at the same time, I had this sense that I was born to lead. I needed to get my crap together so I could be an effective leader."

    Rohr decided she had had enough sitting around. She dyed her auburn hair back to its naturally darker shade and moved back to New York City, hoping that the city's energy would help jolt her back to life. She entertained a job offer from a VC firm before finally giving in to what her heart was telling her to create: a new nonprofit. She would create a version of PEP that operated outside the prison system.

    (PEP is still going strong in Texas. "We came very close to having the doors locked," says Bert Smith, who is now CEO of the program. "There were a number of people who were convinced that without Catherine Rohr, PEP would fail. I'm happy to say that it didn't.")

    Defy Ventures has raised more than $1.5 million in donations and pledges from VC firms, hedge funds, businesses, and private foundations. Last fall, Rohr began accepting applications for the first class. After requesting referrals from the New York parole and probation departments and about 25 prisoner rehabilitation programs, Defy received more than 180 applications from former inmates interested in the free classes. Rohr looked for candidates who had high school diplomas or GEDs, who owned up to their crimes, and who were motivated to change their lives.

    Today, when Rohr stands before a classroom of ex-cons and future entrepreneurs, everyone understands that the group shares a common story of failure—separated by degrees, of course. A few weeks after the program began, she told them all about what happened in Texas. "I was very hesitant to step foot in the classroom again," says Rohr. "I was concerned about how would these guys look at me. But I've never felt that. They are so respectful. I think that I'm able to be a better leader now that, in a way, we have a shared experience. I know what it feels like to let people down."

    Here in the classroom, student Marlon Llin, who served 10 years for conspiracy to sell narcotics, stands at the blackboard. Llin, 37, is trying to figure out how much he should charge for the various services he provides through his new company, Mylo's Repairs. Kene Turner, an instructor from the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and one of Defy's course leaders, is teaching the men about pricing. Turner asks Llin what he charges to remodel a bathroom. Llin says $150 to $200, and the customer pays for the materials. As the class watches, Turner shows Llin all the things he will have to pay for out of that fee, including insurance, gas for his truck, office supplies, and taxes. As it turns out, Llin isn't making nearly as much as he thought he was. "You're undercharging," says Turner.

    Llin—and every other man in the room—has a visible "aha" moment. "I never thought about it that way before," says Llin. "I get it," adds another man in the back. They had been used to thinking like men living paycheck to paycheck, worried only about how much they needed to make per hour to survive and feed their families. Now they are seeing what it means to think like entrepreneurs.

    At its core, the true purpose of Defy is to change the way these men think about themselves and their lives, says Rohr. One of her techniques is something she calls the Ten Bear Hugs. Every class starts with group hugs. It's a strange sight, watching these men, many of whom have done decades of hard time, warmly embrace one another and everyone else in the room. "Initially, we didn't like it," says Jeff Ewell, who was incarcerated for a little less than a year for conspiracy to sell firearms. He is creating an online music exchange that would let artists buy instrumental tracks directly from producers. "But now we have to get told, 'Sit down, stop hugging each other; we've got to get stuff done.' " Rohr's goal is to break down the walls these men have had up around themselves for much of their lives.

    Fabian Ruiz spent more than half his life with corrections officers who, he says, "don't even look at inmates as people." At 16, Ruiz killed the man who shot his older brother. While awaiting trial on Rikers Island in New York City, he attempted to escape and was recaptured. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 20 years to life. He spent the next 21 years in a series of maximum-security prisons in New York State. He was released about a year ago at the age of 37.

    Ruiz learned about Defy from a friend. His brown eyes dance when he talks about his start-up, Infor-Nation. It will sell printouts of webpages to inmates of New York's prison system, who are blocked from using the Internet. Ruiz thinks his business has huge market potential. He really wants to win the business-plan competition—all the students do. The winners not only get the prize money, but they will also get to participate in Defy's six-month incubator program, helped by a team of entrepreneurs-in-residence and volunteer accountants, lawyers, and other mentors.

    But the benefits of this program go well beyond prize money, says Ewell. Defy has helped him open up to other people, he says. "I've always been the type of person to attack everything alone," says Ewell. "The one thing we never learned to do was trust in another individual." But he developed a powerful bond with his fellow classmates. "We kind of became a brotherhood," he says.

    To succeed, these men must learn to reject failure, which isn't always easy.

    Failure can have its own comforts, says Rohr. "When Jesus would go up to a leper or a blind person and ask, 'Do you want to be healed?' it always seemed to me such an idiotic question," she says. "Of course you want to be healed. But a leper was taken care of. If you're not a leper anymore, you have to provide for yourself. You have all these different expectations if you're no longer the blind man. That's how it is with our guys, too. And not all of them want to see."

    In fact, almost half the class has quit—Rohr started with 50 students. Some left because they got jobs they couldn't pass up. Others just couldn't hack the workload. Those who have stayed hope that maybe they won't be known for the worst thing they ever did. Maybe they will be known for building something great. The same goes for Rohr, who hopes to eventually expand Defy Ventures to other cities around the country. "I've spent my whole life talking about grace and second chances," she says, "and I have now been the recipient of it."

    Ex-Cons Relaunching Lives as Entrepreneurs

    Work Programs For Texas Inmates Go High-Tech
    Prison Factories Train Prisoners And Save The State Money

    By Allan Turner
    April 1, 2012

    The front gate of the Wynne Unit is shown in Huntsville.
    The Wynne Unit is home to one of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's two computer repair labs.
    Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    HUNTSVILLE - With stacks of broken computers towering toward the ceiling and intense white-clad technicians frowning over workbenches filled with the machines' electronic guts, this could be any high-tech repair shop in America. Or so you may think until rolls of concertina wire bristling from the walls remind you of where you are.

    John Hargrove rebuilds keyboards at the Wynne Unit.
    Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    Welcome to Huntsville's Wynne Unit, home of one of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's two computer repair labs, where each month inmate workers fix or discard up to 250,000 pounds of malfunctioning equipment.

    An inmate works in the graphics plant at the Wynne Unit.
    Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    In Texas, a state whose prison work programs are best known for agriculture and license plates, the computer shops represent the cutting edge of a factory system that produces everything from street signs to mattresses for state college dorms and soap for scrubbing jailhouse floors.

    Jack Thornton, left, and Carlos Castillo cut a mattress top at a correctional factory at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville.
    Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    Training For 5,200

    In the process, Texas Correctional Industries factories in 37 prisons provide job training for up to 5,200 inmates and help cut costs for cities, counties, schools and other tax-supported entities across the state.

    "This fits our overall mission to help offenders re-integrate," said C.F. Hazelwood, the TDCJ's director of manufacturing and logistics. "One of the best ways is to teach them how to work," he said, "to train and provide them with some sort of skill."

    Barbara Belbot, an associate criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, said the Texas program is typical of those found in state and federal prisons throughout the nation.

    "You've got to keep these guys working, right?" Belbot said. "It's hard to keep these guys busy. You've got to come up with the right mix of work activities."

    In some cases, the professor noted, the most valuable lessons taught are simply how to responsibly keep a job. As many as 40 percent of those inmates entering the TCI program have no work experience.

    Nonetheless, said Kevin Von Rosenberg, work and training division manager, the program reaps benefits.

    Overall in the 156,000-inmate system, he said, up to 24 percent of those released from prison return within three years. Among the inmate workers who stay on the job the longest, recidivism drops to 11 percent.

    Started With Textiles

    Cedric Brown sews up a mattress at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville.
    Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    Dean Johnson sorts virgin cotton at the Wynne Unit mattress factory. Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    The corrections system has been about inmate work almost from its beginning.

    The first Texas prison, the Walls Unit in Huntsville, opened its doors in 1849.

    By 1853, it had been equipped with textile machinery on which inmates processed 500 bales of cotton and 6,000 pounds of wool each year.

    Textile operations remain a big part of prison jobs today. Inmates grow and harvest cotton, then spin and weave it into fabric for use in prison clothing, which they sew. Prisoners each month make 110,000 towels, 120,000 pairs of socks, 85,000 shirts and pants, and 75,000 pairs of underwear.

    Prison officials say the cost of inmate clothing purchased through a vendor is $7 to $10; making the same clothing in-house costs about $5.

    Workers also refurbish public school buses, re-tread tires, produce signs, banners and departmental awards, build furniture, craft shoes and, of course, make license plates.

    Inmates work on a printer making state inspection stickers in the graphics plant at the Wynne Unit.
    Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    The workday in Wynne's computer repair shop starts at 5:15 a.m.

    Randy Wilson runs a personal license plate printer at the Wynne Unit.
    Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    Inmate technicians - the Huntsville location employs 33 - get 18 months of training, according to shop supervisor Bob Stoudt. When machines arrive for repair, hard disks are destroyed or stripped of their content.

    Workers have no Internet access.

    "You can tell the age of the computers by how yellow they are," Stoudt noted. Amid statewide budget cuts, many clients - especially schools - are desperate to keep their old equipment working, he said.

    Digital Advances

    Sophisticated technology has reached into most aspects of prison production.

    Before digital equipment was installed in the license plate shop three years ago, workers stamped out 50,000 a day. Now, that daily total approaches 80,000.

    Personalized license plates roll off the plate maker at the Wynne Unit.
    Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    Rafael Ponce runs a license plant printer at the Wynne Unit. Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

    In another shop, laser and other modern equipment are used to produce vinyl signs, street signs, window decals and banners.

    Derwin Madden, at age 53 and 20 years into a 60-year sentence for murder, says he hopes to use skills learned on the job should he be paroled.

    Madden will next be considered for parole in May 2013.

    "I recognize my mistakes; I've much to regret," he said. "But when I get out, I'd like to open my own sign shop. It took me awhile to catch on to this work - about nine months. I'd never done anything like it until I came here."

    Work programs for Texas inmates go high-tech

    Inmate Cooks Give Back At Food Bank
    By Jessica Kwong

    Prison inmate James Thomas (right) moves trays of food
    at the San Antonio Food Bank that will be fed to kids in after
    school programs. Inmates learn culinary skills in the Community
    Kitchen program and prepare 800 to 900 meals a day. The inmates
    are from the Torres Unit near Hondo, Texas.

    On a recent weekday morning, 11 state prison inmates swarmed the San Antonio Food Bank's kitchen, picking out some of the better groceries and ingredients in stock.

    Leonardo De La Rosa, 25, imprisoned for an aggravated robbery when he was 16 and possession of drugs when he was 19, had a tray full of whole tilapias.

    “Originally, I wanted to make asparagus-filled fish with peppercorn sauce, but they didn't have green peppercorns, chives,” he said, dipping one of the fish in thick batter and gently dropping it head-first into a deep fryer. “So I had to think of something else.”

    The Dallas native is one of about a dozen inmates escorted from the Torres Unit in Hondo before dawn Monday through Thursday to participate in the food bank's Community Kitchen program.

    The white caps and aprons they don over prison uniforms — and the gourmet breakfasts and lunches they whip up — make it hard to believe they have up to two years left to serve on their sentences.

    Aside from good behavior, the dozen “trusties,” as they are called, must be top students in the six-month culinary training programs offered at various prison units, correctional officer Pernell Ross said.

    “These are the valedictorians of their unit,” he said. “They have to get picked to come here.”

    Corrections Officer Pernell Ross (left) watches as inmates (dressed in white) from the Texas Department of
    Criminal Justice's Torres Unit prepare to assemble after school meals Monday December 12, 2011 at the San
    Antonio Food Bank. Inmates in the Food Bank's Community Kitchen program are learning culinary skills to make
    themselves marketable for employment opportunities when they are released from prison.

    Watched by two correctional officers, they spend much of the morning concocting dishes like De La Rosa's fish. But they also run the food bank's Kids Cafe, which distributes 900 meals to agencies like the Boys & Girls Club so children from struggling families won't go home hungry.

    That's not much of a culinary challenge — usually it means reheating Salisbury steak and green beans — but trustee Zachary Mayes of Baytown, 35, halfway through a four-year sentence for an aggravated assault, said he enjoys it.

    “Sometimes I don't feel like coming to work,” he said, catching trays in the assembly line. “But my motivation is feeding kids so they don't get in trouble with their stomachs growling.”

    Without the trainees, “we would not have the labor to be able to produce those meals,” said food bank president and CEO Eric Cooper. The Community Kitchen started in 2003 and began including inmates in 2006, after he approached Tony D'Cunha, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's laundry, food and supply director.

    D'Cunha is sold on it. Most employers are turned off by ex-convict applicants, he said, but hiring from this program has been “exceptional.”

    “This can be a model for food banks nationwide, where the prison system gives back to the community by returning (inmates) to society as taxpaying citizens,” D'Cunha said.

    A similar, six-week pilot program with Bexar County Jail inmates successfully wrapped up at Haven for Hope in December. Funding for the next round hasn't been decided.

    The Village at Incarnate Word's dietary director Giovanni Laurel said the three graduates he hired from the Community Kitchen program to work at the retirement community “came in running.” They weren't inmates, but he said he is open to hiring trustees with comparable skills once their criminal backgrounds are cleared.

    “I've had lunch there and it was wonderful,” Laurel said. “It was great food that was cooked by the inmates — beautifully presented, flavorful.”

    After six hours in the kitchen, trustees get to sit down and savor their own creations. That day, it was white rice with a sweet-and-sour sauce of red, yellow and green bell peppers, roasted potatoes, barbecued pork ribs and one other entrée — De La Rosa's tilapia.

    “Your piranhas are pretty good,” joked inmate James Thomas, 45, of Houston, in a compliment to De La Rosa. Thomas has been in the program longer and serves as a mentor to the others.

    Already on to the orange cheesecake, De La Rosa smiled. “This is my first time cooking lunch,” he said.

    “For his first time, he did great,” said Thomas, who is nearing the end of a 30-year sentence for burglary. “It's 300 percent better than food at the unit. We go back and don't eat.”


    Texas cuts costs amid prison reform
    New treatment programs credited as prison population slows

    Dec. 15, 2009

    Texas has a long-standing reputation, branded in the culture of the Old West, as a state that is tough on crime.

    Since the 1990s, the Lone Star state has been locking up criminals at an incredible rate. But housing all those Texas prisoners — which state authorities say once grew to equal the size of the entire federal prison system — was costly.

    Now, Texas has a new swagger that comes from a recently released U.S. Justice Department report showing the growth of the state's prison population is slowing to the extent that three new prisons slated for construction have been scrapped. At the same time, the state is becoming the unlikely new role model for a prison reform movement spreading across the country.

    State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, and state Sen. John Whitmire, D- Houston, worked across partisan lines to implement the “reinvestment movement” in 2007, which they say is just starting to show results.

    The program invests state funds in drug, alcohol and mental health programs to treat offenders rather than just prisons to house them.

    “Texas is showing the rest of the country that if you look at research you can find ways to cut costs and crime at the same time,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center's public safety performance project, a nonprofit think tank. “Just this week the work that Texas has done was featured prominently at the national conference on state legislatures in San Diego. States are learning that they just can't build their way out of crime.”

    Tony Fabelo, research director for the Justice Center for the Council of State Governments, helped Texas develop its program and is pleased to see the prison population stabilizing.

    According to the Justice Department's national report on prisons released this week, the number of admissions to Texas prisons increased by 0.4 percent in 2008, which is much lower than the average increase of 3 percent that had occurred since 2000.

    The Texas Department of Corrections also reports that its cellblocks are being vacated so quickly that the prison population has stopped growing altogether and instead declined by 1,050 inmates from 2008 through this monthto 155,076.

    Reversing a trend

    Bill Sabol, a U.S. Justice Department statistician who wrote the report, said Texas was also one of two states showing the biggest drop in imprisonment rates. The number of people imprisoned per 100,000 population decreased by 30, going from 669 to 639 per 100,000.

    Yet the number of people incarcerated in Texas still far exceeds the national average of 504 per 100,000 population, he added. If these reforms keep progressing according to plan, Madden said, “We will not need to build another prison for five years.” That reverses the trend that began in the 1980s. Between 1985 and 2005, the state prison population grew 300 percent and Texas spent $2.3 billion adding 108,000 beds.

    But by 2005, Texas had reached a turning point: Either spend half a billion dollars to house 17,000 new prisoners or spend less than half that amount to reduce the prison population through treatment programs.

    The result was 10,000 beds were set aside for substance abuse and mental programs for probationers, parolees and prisoners, “The research showed that our prisons were being overwhelmed by those who could receive alternative treatment to incarceration and therefore preserve our resources for the dangerous violent offender,” Madden said.

    He noted drastic cuts had been made to community-based treatment facilities by the 2003 Legislature. By 2006 more than 2,000 adults were on waiting lists.

    Other changes were also made, such as setting a maximum limit for parole caseloads so that parolees had adequate supervision and investing in a program that partners nurses with low-income mothers to teach childcare skills.

    Parole violations drop

    What worried some critics was that crime might have a resurgence under these “feel-good” measures, said Marsha McLane, Madden's policy director. “But a lot of times offenders would much rather select a stint in jail rather than going through treatment and follow-up,” she said. “The key is getting the right person in treatment, not the violent offenders.”

    The results have been promising. The state reports a dramatic 25 percent drop in parole violators being returned to prison while the number of those being paroled has increased by 3 percent.

    “We've made a marked improvement in the re-entry of people released from prison,” Madden said.

    He added that county jails are now no longer being used to house prisoners for the state as used to occur.

    At the same time, communities across the state have been safer: The Texas Department of Public Safety reported major crime decreased by 3 percent in 2008.

    Madden, who overcame stiff competition in his last re-election bid by an opponent who criticized him for being soft on crime, hopes to see funding for these treatment programs continue.

    “We're a proud people who don't like change,” Madden said. “But now being tough and smart on crime is a better utilization of the taxpayer dollar.”

    Texas cuts costs amid prison reform

    Prisons ban program founder for ‘improper relationships’

    By Mike Ward
    October 15, 2009

    The founder of the highly acclaimed Prison Entrepreneurship Program has abruptly resigned after she was banned from entering state prisons for having improper relationships with four ex-convict graduates of her program.

    In a letter to supporters, Catherine Rohr, 32, who founded the Houston-based PEP five years ago, acknowledged that “mistakes in my personal life involved inappropriately close relationships with four free men who were also PEP graduates.”

    Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, confirmed this morning that Rohr was banned last week from prisons and from working with parolees after investigators confirmed she had “engaged in inappropriate behavior.

    “Our policies are clear: Volunteers cannot have personal or intimate relationships with current or former offenders,” Lyons said.

    Rohr had been widely credited with creating a statewide nonprofit that trained felons in how to start businesses and become successful in business once they left prison. Rohr recruited support from Fortune 500 companies and high-profile executives, and her successes had made headlines in The New York Times and other national publications.

    To date, about 500 ex-cons had graduated from the five-month program. Most have been successful, according to PEP data.

    Rohr could not immediately be reached for comment.

    But in a letter she sent Wednesday to her supporters, Rohr attributed the lapse to “the darkest period in my life, resulting from my divorce in December 2008.”

    The letter reveals she took a leave of absence about that time, and had returned to her role as CEO last February.

    “I found myself incapable of leading, and took a sabbatical from PEP,” she wrote in her letter. “I took emotional comfort in released graduates — the easiest people for me to relate to through my failures — which led to inappropriately close relationships.”

    She said she revealed her mistakes only a month ago to the PEP board.

    “I realize that I have destroyed much of the credibility that I worked so hard to earn with you,” she wrote. “I am so remorseful for my poor choices and the negative consequences of my actions. While serving PEP wholeheartedly as a consultant, I hope to have the opportunity to earn back your confidence.”

    Asked whether Rohr could continue with the program as a consultant, Lyons said: “I don’t believe that will be an option.”

    An internal investigation of the case is ongoing, other prison officials said.

    Lyons said the investigation began about a month after the agency “received an anonymous letter … alleging that Rohr was involved in a relationship with a former offender who recently came off of parole supervision.

    “Officials followed up on the allegation and contacted Rohr who confirmed that the allegation was true,” Lyons said, noting the agency then barred her from prison volunteering.

    “The agency took this action because inappropriate relationships between volunteers and offenders compromise the safety of the volunteers, staff, and the overall security of the facility. Volunteers are trained extensively before entering units on what is considered appropriate conduct.”

    In a separate letter top PEP supporters, PEP board chairman William Meyer, who is chief financial officer of San Jose, Calif.-based Bell Micro Inc., said the organization intends to continue on.

    “We believe passionately in our mission,” he stated. “PEP is a strong and growing organization that is addressing one of the nation’s biggest problems and making a huge difference.”

    According to PEP officials, Phi Tran, the group’s chief operating officer, has been named acting CEO while the board conducts a nationwide search to replace Rohr.

    Get more Legislative coverage inside the Virtual Capitol

    Prisons ban program founder for ‘improper relationships’

    Texas prisons bar founder of jobs program after she reveals relationships with parolees

    October 15, 2009
    The Dallas Morning News

    Catherine Rohr, founder of the Houston-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program, has resigned as chief executive of the nonprofit. She has also been banned from Texas prisons and from working with parolees after divulging that she had inappropriate relationships with PEP graduates.

    Since founding PEP in 2004, Rohr, 32, is credited with building a statewide prison organization that has graduated 500 felons from a five-month program about how to start businesses and be gainfully employed.

    She and PEP were featured in a Cheryl Hall column on Oct. 4. The organization has an office in Dallas.

    In a letter e-mailed Tuesday night to 7,500 supporters, Rohr said she sought "emotional comfort" from several released PEP graduates after her divorce in December. She said she decided to publicly disclose her improprieties so PEP could move forward.

    "Although these mistakes were not illegal, I was recently banned by the Texas prison system from re-entering prison and volunteering with released men on parole supervision, " she wrote.

    In an interview Wednesday, Bill Meyer, chairman of PEP and chief financial officer of San Jose, Calif.-based Bell Micro Inc., said Rohr disclosed her inappropriate relationships to the PEP board a month ago. He said the board learned of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice decision to ban her from future prison work last week.

    "The organization is focused on continuing our unique mission of stimulating positive life transformation for executives and inmates," Meyer said. "We are currently in discussions with Catherine and the TDCJ about her future role."

    TDCJ public information officer Jason Clark said the agency is "deeply saddened and concerned by Ms. Rohr's disclosure" but took action because inappropriate relationships "compromise the safety of the volunteers, staff and the overall security of the facility."

    He said the agency hopes to work with PEP's board but "cannot allow her continued involvement in the program."

    Phi Tran, the organization' s chief operating officer, has been named acting CEO while the board conducts a nationwide search for Rohr's replacement.

    Jim Yadgir, a commodities trader in Chicago and a major contributor to PEP, said that he has pledged $200,000 to the organization but that it is contingent on Rohr's continued involvement in some capacity. "My pledge stays if Catherine Rohr stays. My pledge goes if Catherine Rohr goes. That's as simply as I can put it.

    "The fact is there are 500 or more guys out there who are now willing to carry your groceries to the car rather than steal them, thanks to her."

    Texas prisons bar founder of jobs program after she reveals relationships with parolees

    What we can learn from prisoners

    July 6, 2009

    I recently returned from being in prison in Cleveland, Texas. Along with other business leaders from across the U.S. and abroad, I came to help murderers, burglars and drug pushers get a unique second chance.

    In five years, 440 prisoners have graduated from the four-month Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). The majority have landed good, honest jobs within the first month of release. Fifty-eight have started their own business, ranging from landscaping to software development. PEP´s volunteers number more than 450 MBA students and more than 1,000 business executives.

    For all the fearful prison virgins, it was no mystery that we’d be scared. The coordinator announced to the prisoners, “As we all know, first-timers expect you all to act like animals.” On command, the prisoners flailed their limbs and made animal sounds. Later, volunteers clad in suits, and prisoners in uniforms, all got up to do the chicken dance and trade big bear hugs. It’s amazing how quickly you get comfortable with someone (yes, even a prisoner) if you’re both quickly forced to dance like complete fools.

    While first-time volunteers may have entered with an “It’ll feel good to help these less fortunate souls” attitude, we were all shocked to be learning from them.

    The men were so polite and eager to learn, we couldn’t help but open our hearts. You’ve heard before that we have something to learn from everyone. I sincerely think that often, but am seldom able to consistently maintain that view. That day, I went with the attitude of looking forward to sharing my business knowledge. What was I, a business professional, going to learn from a murderer?

    PEP is largely about building character. It’s making men act like real responsible men. Participants take classes on etiquette, substance abuse, relationships and fatherhood.

    Walking your talk in classes is a mandatory, ongoing and enforced requirement of staying in the program. Give in to petty prison crimes like sneaking extra food or accepting a smuggled cigarette, and you’re out of PEP. Like the TV show Survivor, your peers get to vote you “off the island” if they feel your actions aren’t consistent with your words.

    Most of the volunteers were taken aback by the rigorous standards.

    Prison leaves few places to hide, so small mistakes count.

    Besides that, Catherine Rohr, the founder of the program, works the men to the bone. Innumerable hours of study are standard fare. It is hard to get accepted, and even harder to stay in. Bottom line, you have to be dedicated.

    These men were not just hard-working. They were in touch with their emotions. They were flowing with excitement and enthusiasm, like children. I can’t remember being around so many happy people. They forgot their frequently unsupportive pasts. They had found new role models in PEP. The environment at PEP was so encouraging that they felt they could overcome life’s disappointments.

    The evening ended with thoughts from our hearts. The lights were dimmed, soft music played. A few participants and volunteers got up to verbalize the impact of the day’s experience.

    The theme from the business leaders was summed up by one volunteer, “I came here in fear for my life, and I leave here dumbfounded at my misconception. Outside these walls are people that are so fearful of everything, especially in this economic condition — and the most joy, love and happiness I have seen in years is within this room. Thank you for your inspiration.”

    Godiwalla is a marketing professional with an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and is a contributing writer for the Austin Business Journal (

    What we can learn from prisoners

    News: March 6, 2009

    Reefer Madness: Treatment Works

    Bill would divert low-level drug offenders from prison and save a bundle of money

    By Jordan Smith

    Keeping people in prison is expensive. It costs the state of Texas more than $14,000 (at the low end) to house an inmate in a state jail facility for a year and, on average, more than $16,000 per year to house an inmate in a Texas prison.

    According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's 2007 annual review, it costs more than $2 billion per year to incarcerate felons – 79.4% of the agency's budget. The cost might be understandable if it were being spent to house violent offenders who pose a real risk to society. But the fact is that a large chunk of that money is actually being spent to house low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Keeping those folks out of state jails and prisons could save the state a lot of money – according to the Legislative Budget Board, it could save the state as much as $500 million over just five years.

    That's the goal of Senate Bill 1118, the so-called Treatment Works bill, filed by Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston; John Carona, R-Dallas; and Glenn Hegar, R-Katy (with co-sponsors Robert Deuell, R- Greenville, and John Whitmire, D-Houston), which would divert from prison and state jail offenders charged with third-degree felony or misdemeanor drug possession. These defendants instead would be put into community supervision and, importantly, drug treatment – at an average cost of just $3,241 per person.

    The drug treatment costs would be paid by the individual, if possible, meaning the state would have to provide drug-treatment funding for roughly 60% of offenders eligible for the diversion. But that cost pales in comparison to the costs associated with keeping low-level drug offenders in jail: As of Aug. 31, 2008, there were more than 19,000 inmates in Texas facilities for drug possession, which costs, on average, more than $260 million a year.

    Continuing to spend that kind of money, especially in a down economy, just to lock up nonviolent drug offenders makes no sense, says Ellis. And the bill contains extra motivation for offenders to stay out of jail. If successful in treatment, a defendant can ultimately ask a judge for nondisclosure of the original charge, which helps individuals land and keep employment, access funding for education, and stay clean. "My motivation is to create a smarter, more effective criminal justice system in Texas, and this bill does just that," he said. "It saves Texas money while still keeping Texans safe."

    This is the second time Ellis has filed such legislation.

    In 2007, he joined with Carona and Deuell to offer the same bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, in the House. The bill passed easily out of House and Senate committees but later languished on the House floor. Why it died isn't entirely clear – with strong bipartisan support, Capitol watchers thought the bill was a clear choice for fiscal responsibility.

    But it proved politically challenging: Madden's support for the measure became an issue during his re-election campaign, and, says Marc Levin, with the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice, it nearly cost him his seat.

    Jon Cole, Madden's 23-year-old primary challenger, did a stint with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under former drug czar John Walters while he was a student at Georgetown University. During the campaign, Cole tossed a soft-on- crime barb at Madden, and the label gained traction. Cole called for a return to "Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs" (while, ironically, also calling on lawmakers to "rein in spending"), and he got backing from eight current and former elected district attorneys, including Williamson Co. D.A. John "Tough Guy" Brad ley. Madden hung on to his seat, but the primary vote was close, with Madden pulling 51.8% of the vote. (Notably, Madden has not yet signed on to this session's version of the bill.)

    For sure, the only public opposition to the measure in 2007 was from prosecutors – and only a single voice, an assistant district attorney with the Harris Co. prosecutor's office, spoke out against the measure at a committee hearing, complaining that the drug quantities covered by the bill were excessive for a simple user. In short, there are certainly politics involved in such reforms, but Levin says TPPF supports the measure because it's smart policy. "It's a challenge getting support from Republicans in the House, but I'm working on it," he said. "It's good policy, and that's what we're focusing on. The politics will take care of itself."

    Indeed, it's not as though this kind of measure is untried, and state lawmakers are increasingly turning to adopting prison-diversion programs. Notably, in 1996, Arizona voters passed the Drug Medicalization, Preven tion and Control Act, which did much the same thing that SB 1118 now seeks to do. In Arizona, Levin notes, the program boasts a 77% success rate in keeping folks from becoming repeat offenders. And California, where voters passed a similar measure in 2001, has already seen more than $1 billion in savings.

    In fact, between 2004 and 2006, 22 states enacted legislative reforms to sentencing policies, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, including several that passed diversion programs similar to the Texas proposal.

    Any opposition, of course, will likely come in the form of tough-on- crime posturing that took place last session. But the reality is that we can't incarcerate our way out of crime – and certainly this is not a solution for the majority of drug offenders. The fact that drug addiction is a disease is hardly controversial. While some people see addiction as a "failure of will," former National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Alan Leshner argued addiction "should be understood as a chronic recurring illness." According to the institute, $1 spent on treatment actually saves $4 to $7 in costs related to addiction.

    Given the money involved and the lives in the balance, getting people out of jail and into treatment makes perfect sense, says Ellis. "Any reform of this type will be an uphill climb in Texas, but I feel very good about its chance for passage," Ellis said. "We have strong bipartisan support, and we are starting to see a shift from the 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' mentality.

    ... I think that holds true in both parties – and though we haven't spoken directly about it – I believe if we get this bill to [Gov. Rick] Perry's desk, it will become law."

    Reefer Madness: Treatment Works

    Copyright © 2009 Austin Chronicle Corporation.

    Dukakis: Texas model in prison rehab

    By Mike Ward
    March 4, 2009

    Michael Dukakis knows the deadly spiral of addiction well.

    His wife, Kitty, beat a highly publicized, years-long addiction to diet pills and anti-depressants.

    As governor of Massachusetts in the 1980s, Dukakis championed cutting- edge treatment programs for imprisoned drunk drivers in his Bay State, among the first in the nation. He launched programs to curb teen-aged drinking and drug abuse.

    As the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, he challenged Americans to kick their habit of drink and drugs.

    On Tuesday, Dukakis, 75, brought his rehab message to Austin, in meetings with state leaders to urge them to grow Texas’ treatment programs — even expand some to cover Medicaid recipients.

    And he brought congratulations: Texas is a national model, by greatly expanding its prison treatment and rehabilitation programs two years ago in a move that was criticized.

    So far, recent reports show, that expansion may be paying off — with recidivism rates that appear to be dropping, and with prison growth flat-lining so that no expensive new lockups will need to be built for the foreseeable future.

    “Lives are being saved,” Dukakis told, in an exclusive interview in his suite at the Driskill Hotel. “There’s nothing partisan about this issue. This issue was not mentioned in any of the State of the State messages this year, but it’s one of the most important issues we face.”

    Here’s why, Dukakis says:

    For every alcoholic or drunken driver or addicted drug-user who receives treatment, achieves sobriety and becomes a productive citizen, taxpayers spend less and less to deal with the problems.

    For everyone who kicks a drug habit, less cocaine and heroin and other illicit drugs are consumed in the United States — and that cuts the profits of the drug cartels and street gangs.

    “Five of the world’s population in this country accounts for 50 percent of the world’s cocaine use,” Dukakis said. “With the war that’s going on on the border, that could spill into Texas, we need to stop providing the cartels’ profits and stop the demand for the drugs.”

    “There’s a massive silence on this issue. It’s amazing.”

    Dukakis is on the board of a Massachusetts-based group called Join Together that advocates for effective drug and alcohol policy, prevention and treatment.

    “I’m here in Texas to first say, congratulations to Texas for doing this (expanding the prison programs,” he said. “I hope all the states can expand their programslike Texas has.

    “We not only need these programs, we need education programs beginning in the elementary grades to teach children not to use drugs and alcohol.”

    “Programs like these — prevention, treatment, rehabilitation — pay enormously with the lives they save and in the improved public safety that results. If we send people to prison and provide them with no programs, they will come out one day and go back into their community and return to the same cycle of abuse they were in before.”

    For her part, Kitty Dukakis is just as outspoken and committed to the same goals as her husband.

    “I wish what I have been able to achieve for many others,” she said. “Texas is doing the right thing.”

    And from Senate Criminal Justice Committee John Whitmire, D-Houston, one of the Texans who the Dukakis’ came to Austin to congratulate, came this response:

    “How often do you hear that — someone from Massachusetts congratulating Texas. Texas is trying. We’re trying to make a difference.”

    Dukakis: Texas model in prison rehab

    Drug program gets credit for halting prisoner increase

    By Mike Ward
    February 20, 2009

    Texas' prison population has stopped growing for the time being, thanks in part to changes in corrections policy two years ago that boosted financing for rehabilitation programs, new statistics revealed Thursday. Texas will not have to consider building new prisons at a time when the economy's struggles are pinching the state budget, officials said.

    "We put 6,000 treatment beds on line in the past two years ... and this is the initial result: just what we expected," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, who co-wrote legislation mandating the expanded treatment programs in 2007.

    Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the statistics show "a dramatic turnaround." Thursday's testimony by the Legislative Budget Board to the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee marked the first public report card on the new programs, which two years ago were championed by corrections advocates as a step forward and opposed by some prosecutors and police groups as too soft on crime.

    "Crime is down; the programs are working," said Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the 112-prison system. "It's been proven before that these types of programs have an impact on recidivism, so these new numbers are no surprise."

    According to the report, the number of convicts in state prisons is expected to remain steady this year and then decline slightly the following year — for the first time in several years.

    In 2012, however, the prison population could begin increasing again, and by 2014, it is expected to grow from the current 155,000 to nearly 158,000, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

    Billed at the time as the biggest shift for Texas corrections policy in years, the 2007 changes expanded the capacity of in-prison drug and alcohol treatment programs, opened new transition treatment centers to help convicts succeed once they got out, expanded counseling and specialized drug treatment programs, and opened new lockups designed especially for habitual drunken driving offenders.

    The total cost was more than $227 million. Money is being sought this year for additional treatment beds, which could further reduce the prison population, said state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, who is co-author of the plan and chairman of the House Corrections Committee.

    Drug program gets credit for halting prisoner increase

    This is a program worthy of some of that new discretionary grant funding that's going to be coming Governor Perry's way!

    Turning crack dealers into chief executives

    By Lucy Ash
    Reporter, Fresh Start, BBC World Service

    The smartly dressed young woman scribbles some percentages onto a board.

    As she talks about excel spread sheets, due diligence, final contracts and $10m (£6.9m) deals, about 40 men sit in rows behind her listen intently and take notes.

    It may sound just like any other business school class, but the students are surrounded by the high fences and razor wire of the Cleveland Correctional Facility, just north of Houston.

    Four years ago Catherine Rohr was a venture capitalist on Wall Street. Then she left her job with its six-figure salary and decided to create the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, or PEP.

    "They don't all understand risk management as well as they should because they all got busted", Catherine Rohr, Founder of PEP

    Since then she has shared her professional experience with almost 400 inmates.

    It all started when Ms Rohr was invited into another Texas prison by a fellow executive from her church.

    At first she was not very interested.

    "I didn't know any prisoners personally, but I thought 'just lock 'em up and throw away the key'," she says.

    "I saw them as a waste of tax dollars. I was very brutal in my approach."

    But Catherine then recognised that many were ordinary human beings who had made some serious mistakes in their lives.

    She also spotted something else, something missed by the majority of prison visitors, namely the men's 'ROI' or return on investment potential.

    "It wasn't just their potential, it was their proven abilities", she says.

    "They understand basic leadership and management principles, profitability.

    "They don't all understand risk management as well as they should because they all got busted when they came to prison, but when it comes to execution and marketing - they get it."

    Felipe Dias is a former member of the Mexican Mafia now studying business.

    Ms Rohr realised that influential convicted felons could be America's most overlooked talent pool.

    Felipe Dias is one of the convicts Catherine plans to redirect into a legitimate enterprise.

    He was once a lieutenant of the Mexican Mafia gang and made tens of thousands of dollars a month importing drugs and selling firearms and stolen cars.

    I ask the soft spoken, heavily tattooed man what made him capable of leading 800 gang members.

    He looks me straight in the eye and replies: "When I made a decision it was a firm decision. I had to use investigative skills.

    "You see, before you hurt somebody or you promote somebody in the gang you have to investigate everything from A to Z. You cannot leave a single stone unturned."

    But how do you make men like Dias channel their energies and skills into a more positive and legitimate direction?

    Like many people, Ms Rohr is familiar with The Wire, an American TV series set in gritty west Baltimore, which shows how the drug trade explicitly follows the rules of capitalism.

    One of the characters, a high ranking dealer attends evening classes at a business school to learn the rules of running an enterprise.

    "Our goal is not to turn a good crack dealer into a better one", she says.

    "We aim to transform the whole personality".

    A fresh start

    Dias says he wants to start a tailoring shop when he gets out as he has learned to sew recently and often alters prison uniforms, including those of the guards.

    But will such a modest enterprise really satisfy him after years of highly lucrative crime?

    "I've made a decision that I will start from nothing", he says.

    "Sometimes when I am in my cell I tremble from fear because now I know I have to do everything the right way this time around."

    PEP has created a network of top executives and business schools around the country to help the inmates achieve the American dream.

    Prisoners get advice on business plans, operating budgets and market research.

    They learn to make elevator pitches in front of millionaire executives and Harvard students.

    Most funding comes from individuals and private foundations, but the scheme also receives donations from corporations.

    Inmates get to pitch their business ideas to leading company executives

    John Jackson, an oil pipeline boss, got an award for his work with PEP from President George Bush last summer.

    In his sleek high-rise office, he explains how he began thinking about the plight of ex-cons after his own brother was convicted for drink driving and couldn't get a job on his release.

    He says many businesses would like to give felons a chance, but they are afraid of the risks involved with a 50 to 70% national reoffending rate.

    "The beauty of PEP is that there has been an extremely rigorous programme up front", he says.

    "You can come into the prison and see these guys who have really worked hard to do a business plan and they have expressed a sincere desire to change.

    "So employers can take a chance on an individual but it is not just a random chance."

    Jimmy Vigil was sent to Texas in 1999 to find new members for the Milwaukee Kings, the biggest Latino crime syndicate in Chicago.

    At first he enjoyed the power and the money, but he was convicted of attempted murder, sent to prison and the glamour of his street life faded and he began to feel remorse for his actions.

    "They give you a clean slate - they don't look at you as a felon or a convict or somebody who does wrong. They look at you as someone with potential", Jimmy Vigil, former gang member.

    Vigil saw a PEP flyer on the prison notice board, signed up and four months later he got an interview. After all, he did have experience in sales and recruitment.

    Following an intense screening process of 1,100 applicants from 65 Texas prisons, he was one of 69 selected.

    "I felt truly blessed to be one of the 69," he says.

    "They give you a clean slate. They don't look at you as a felon or a convict or somebody who does wrong. They look at you as someone with potential."

    Permanent change

    But staying the course is tough.

    Usually only two thirds of the class will graduate.

    Some drop out because they cannot handle the peer-driven character assessments. Others cannot manage the workload, with 40 exams in 17 weeks.

    The programme's reoffending rate, admittedly based on a carefully selected group of students, is less than 5% and Ms Rohr is determined to keep it that way.

    Entrepreneurial success stories include a man who served 10 years for leading a cocaine ring and is now running a tree trimming company with a turnover of more than $1m a year.

    PEP graduate Troy with the first dollar he made from his new business.

    Another man, who served a 30 year sentence for multiple murders, got out aged 55 and is now profitably producing leather purses, belts and Bible covers.

    Some 43 of the 370 graduates have started their own businesses.

    But Catherine says she is also proud of those who come out, manage to hold down steady jobs and become taxpayers rather than tax consumers.

    More than 97% are employed at an hourly rate of about $10.50 within four weeks of release, well above the American minimum wage.

    Troy, a PEP graduate, did not have many roles models when he was growing up.

    His mother was an addict who died of an overdose and his elder brother is still selling drugs, but he decided he wanted to take another path.

    Now he has completed his sentence and has just opened a car repair workshop in South Houston.

    "When I was young I thought it was cool to sell drugs and cool to be violent," he says.

    "It took a lot of beating my head against a wall to realise that wasn't right. With PEP I had somebody to believe in me and mentor me and coach me for the first time in my life."

    Proudly he shows me the new weapons he has to help him go straight; a box of tools and an air impact gun for changing tyres.

    Then I notice the banknote taped to the door.

    "It's the first dollar I earned," says Troy with a grin. "I guess I ought to frame it."

    Turning crack dealers into chief executives


    You can hear Lucy Ash's full report 'Fresh Start' on Monday, 16 February 2009 at 09.00 GMT on the BBC World Service.

    Outlook for issues in 81st Legislature

    January 11, 2009
    Criminal justice

    With the state budget tighter than tight, a primary goal will be to ensure funding for new prison treatment and diversion programs that were approved two years ago.

    More than half are still to be launched, with officials saying the initial programs have been successful.


    Texas Senate News

    November 13, 2008
    (512) 463-0300


    (AUSTIN) -- The director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) reported that reforms passed during the 80th Legislative Session are having a positive impact on prison staffing levels. At a hearing of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, TDCJ Director Brad Livingston testified that his agency has filled more than a thousand vacancies. He said this was accomplished through a increase in starting pay for applicants who have a college degree or an honorable discharge from the military.

    Money appropriated last session also included funds for a 10 percent increase for all staff in the first three levels of prison employees.

    Prison capacity was recently increased by converting former youth facilities in San Saba and Marlin to adult facilities. Last session the Legislature approved increasing space for probation and parole intermediate sanction facilities and drug treatment programs, but a Legislative Budget Board report shows capacity lagging behind projections.

    Committee Chair Senator John Whitmire was less pleased with progress relating to reentry programs, aimed at helping former prisoners reintegrate into society.

    He directed Livingston to redouble his efforts at improving offender reentry, including developing an ID card for former prisoners to help them find work.

    Committee Member Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa also raised concerns about the state of care at privately operated prison and treatment facilities, saying he has heard reports that these institutions cut corners to improve profit margins, and that prisoners at these facilities are more likely to be involved in violent crimes while incarcerated.

    Livingston said conditions at private facilities are monitored by the state and are nearly the same as at any state run prison.

    He promised to deliver a report to the committee comparing rates of violent crime between public and private facilities.

    The Senate Criminal Justice Committee is chaired by Houston Senator John Whitmire, and vice-chaired by Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger.

    Its members are Senators John Carona, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Glenn Hegar, Rodney Ellis and Bob Deuell.

    Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.


    The survey says: More prison programs needed

    Texas group's finding mirrors a growing national interest.

    By Mike Ward
    Wednesday, June 21, 2006

    At a time when state prisons are nearly full and legislative leaders are scratching their heads for a solution to a fast-approaching crowding crisis, a survey by a justice reform group suggests that Texans favor more rehabilitation and treatment programs.

    The study by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition shows that 96 percent of those surveyed view rehabilitation, not incarceration, as the primary purpose of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the same percentage want more treatment programs funded for nonviolent drug offenders as a way to reduce recidivism.

    Among other recommendations: Parole and probation programs should be beefed up to successfully shepherd more nonviolent lawbreakers back into society as law-abiding, taxpaying citizens.

    Sixty-eight percent of the more than 4,000 Texans who took the online survey during a recent two-week period also wanted parole and probation officers' pay raises and promotions to be tied to successful re-entry rates for the ex-cons they oversee.

    The results mirror recent national studies that suggest public support might be growing for rehabilitation and so-called re-entry programs, a shift from a few years ago when punishment and new prisons garnered much of the attention and money.

    The coalition, which includes groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the League of United Latin American Citizens, often lobbies for rehabilitation programs for prisoners. But the size of the survey, along with the growing sentiment among legislative leaders to beef up rehabilitation programs as a way to avoid building expensive prisons, is another indication that alternative programs could be a focus for lawmakers during the 2007 legislative session.

    Gov. Rick Perry vetoed efforts to expand probation programs in 2005, amid opposition from police and prosecutors.

    "We believe the survey shows that Texans are ready to spend their hard-earned money on alternatives to incarceration that will yield real returns," said Ana Yañez Correa, executive director of the coalition.

    The coalition's survey will be submitted to the Texas Sunset Commission, which soon will begin reviewing prison operations as part of its every-12-year study of how to improve individual state agencies.

    Although they had not seen the survey results, prison officials said successful rehabilitation programs remain a top priority.

    "We are trying to give inmates the tools they need to succeed once they are released," said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

    In recent years, educational, counseling and rehabilitation programs for inmates have been cut as lawmakers shied away from raising taxes.

    Within the past three years, prison officials in Texas and other states have increasingly warned that shrinking funding for rehabilitation, treatment and re-entry programs will eventually mean more ex-cons coming back to prison.

    mward@statesman. com; 445-1712

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