Texas corrections system needs fixing
Tommy Adkisson, SA Express News
February 26, 2009

Men and women released from prison by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice get $50 and a bus ticket back to where they came from. For someone trying to start a new life, that isn't much. Hope can become an elusive goal as desperation turns to despair.

These people have served their time. A judge and a parole board have determined they are ready to re-join society. For most, however, the days and weeks ahead will be their greatest struggle yet.

On their first night out, they will need a place to sleep, but many landlords will refuse to rent to someone with a criminal record. Some public housing projects may reject them on the same grounds. Many will end up in temporary housing and homeless shelters, where they may be exposed to the problems they are trying to put behind them. One 2004 study found that parolees who lived in temporary shelters were more likely to end up re-incarcerated than those who had more stable housing.

Making the transition from prison to the community, they will quickly need jobs to make them self-sufficient. In Texas, however, they will face many barriers to finding skilled employment. Those with felony records are barred from being licensed for 168 different professions, from electrician to manicurist. Even unskilled jobs may be hard to find, as employers conducting background checks are reluctant to hire the formerly incarcerated.

In the weeks and months after release, they will also have to contend with the lingering problems that took them to prison in the first place. One recent estimate held that 50 percent of the prison population suffers from mental illness. Drug addiction is even more common. Nationally, about half of the prison population committed the crimes while under the influence of drugs. While some may be treated for mental health and drug problems while incarcerated, once they return to the community, those services become much harder to access.

These problems are inextricably linked, forming a barrier to successful re-entry that some will find impossible to pass. Of the 72,000 people released from Texas prisons each year, about half will return to jail or prison. Faced with unemployment, homelessness, a lack of opportunities or family support and untreated mental illness and drug problems, many will become desperate. They will offend again in a familiar cycle of disappointment and failure.

According to professionals who work most closely with released and paroled prisoners, the worst gap of all is the lack of coordination between service providers and the recently released. While many good programs do exist, working alone and against great odds in communities across Texas, they need the state's support.

Texas needs a Statewide Re-Entry Council to ensure parolees are given the tools they need to take responsibility for their lives, to become productive members of the community and to successfully re-enter society. Texas should qualify to receive federal "Second Chance Act" monies to support re-entry efforts.

I recently convened a Bexar County Re-Entry Council composed of government, non-profit, faith-based organizations and private citizens focused on the developing and implementing programs to assist in a lawful and functional integration of the formerly incarcerated.

I did this because more than 80 percent of the individuals who go to the Bexar County Jail have been there before. This recidivism represents a tremendous public safety issue, to say nothing of the cost to the local taxpayer.

If we truly believe in the promise of redemption and the hope of a second chance, we must support the released men and women who wish to make constructive and law-abiding lives for themselves. We should also support the selfless professionals who work with them and the communities to which their clients will be returning.

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