INK IN THE BLOOD
A recent news story on legislative debate concerning continued funding for a chaplaincy program in the Texas Department of Corrections garnered my attention and got me to thinking about a “then new” idea with which I had some experience 45 years ago.
Texas prisons began to grow out of the incarceration/punishment only business and starting blending rehabilitation into the process in the 1960s, making a unit near Sugar Land a prerelease center.
The program included bringing inmates to the Beauford Jester Unit six weeks prior to their release, either by completion of their full term or by parole, and having them attend classes designed to help them move smoothly into society. Classes included basic courses such as math and English as well as drivers education.
No guns were present on the unit, the reasoning being that if an inmate was six weeks from release, he wouldn’t be a threat to “run” (escape).
Add it iona l ly, pre - rele a se inmates were allowed to wear “civilian” clothes on regularly scheduled trips into the “ free world.” They were escorted on such forays by TDC personnel, but all were in civvies so they’d blend in.
Part of blending was to learn about organizations with which felons had little knowledge, such as civic and service clubs.
Pre-release became a rousing success. Prior to its institution, between 60-70 percent of inmates returned to prison either by violating parole and/or committing another felony. Within the first year, the recidivism rate declined to nearly 30 percent.
At the time of pre-release startup, I was editing and publishing a Fort Bend County newspaper and lived in Sugar Land. One of my civic involvements was helping found the Sugar Land Jaycees, a service organization for young men 18-36 years of age.
Since TDC (with three prison farms near Sugar Land) was a significant economic factor in the area, we looked toward the system as one possibility for service. J.E. Clark was the TDC executive in charge of the pre-release program. He and I had been classmates at Sam Houston State Teachers College where he earned a degree in criminology.
He quickly apprised us of the pre-release’s bent for attending civic and service clubs so inmates could learn about the opportunities those organizations afforded them. And, we began to have 8-10 pre-release inmates at our weekly Jaycee meetings.
At first, we were a bit nervous and so were the inmates, but they began to open up and ask all kinds of questions about how service clubs functioned.
Usually, we were given some advance information about each individual in an inmate group scheduled to visit.
One inmate in particular, Joe, got my attention. Joe served many years “hard time” for armed robbery. Hard time means he served every day of his total sentence. Early in his incarceration, Joe tried to escape. He’d swiped a padlock, put it in a sock and used it like a blackjack to beat a guard in the escape attempt. That did away with his “time off for good behavior” opportunity and added time to his sentence.
In that period, Joe found God. He became a model prisoner. When he was six weeks away from freedom, he went to prerelease and began visiting the Jaycees. Joe had more questions about what went on in the free world than most of the pre-release inmates.
I tracked Joe for several years after that. He kept himself straight and did well during the time I was able to follow his adventure into the free world.
However, not everyone was as accepting of the pre-release program as our Jaycee club.
Clark told of one speaking engagement in a church where he was outlining the pre-release program and its success. His custom was to have a question and answer period after his prepared remarks. When he opened that session to the audience, one of the first questioners was someone he described as the visual epitome of a “sweet lil ol’ white-haired lady.”
J.E.: “Yes, ma’am. What’s your question?”
Lil Ol’ Lady: “I don’t have a question, just sort of an observation: You’re coddlin’ them damn convicts!”