Inmates prepare for `outside'. Texas frees prison beds, aids inmates with private help

In Texas, the response to high crime rates and an overcrowded prison system has been typical of many states: more prisons built, hundreds of millions of dollars spent. Amid an unprecedented prison construction drive, however, the state has also begun experimenting with programs that emphasize counseling and rehabilitation through private initiatives.

The programs take low-risk inmates out of prisons from one to six months before their parole. The goal is to reduce the long-term need for more prison beds by lowering the state's nearly 50 percent recidivism rate.

Pete Tristan is an example of the kind of inmate the state hopes to reach. Mr. Tristan, 26, has been locked up for auto theft three times since he was 17.

``They seem to be trying to teach us right from wrong,'' says Tristan, standing in the yard of the Houston education center, a former motel, that is his temporary home. ``But they're pretty good at reaching us at our level.''

The facility, operated by Pricor, a private corrections company, is one of 24 participating in the state's pre-parole program. After two weeks of intensive group and individual counseling, as well as an eight-hour living-skills class, Tristan will be allowed outside the facility's low-security fence to find a job.

Once he begins working, 25 percent of his pay will go toward defraying the cost of his lodging with Pricor. Still an inmate, he'll return at night for continued counseling, a meal, and sleep.

``We're learning how to live a solid independent life,'' Tristan says of the Pricor program. ``I don't plan on returning to prison, so I'm hoping this works.''

With beds for 39,000 inmates, Texas is second only to California in its prison population. A massive prison construction plan envisions expanding that capacity by two-thirds to more than 65,000 within four years.

Yet state officials and penal experts have begun doubting the wisdom of simply adding more prisons to meet the corrections demand. Those doubts have led to alternatives like Pricor.

Such pre-parole programs still reach a relatively small number of inmates in Texas: about 3,500 last year, out of 34,000 released. But with prison overcrowding expected to last well into the next decade, and with the pre-parole programs often costing less than conventional incarceration, the numbers are expected to increase.

``Eventually, I think every inmate in TDC [Texas Department of Corrections] will go through something like this program,'' says Thomas J. Daugherty, who developed the state's first pre-parole program in 1984 and still administers it. ``I don't care how many prisons you build,'' he adds. ``Without something to help these guys reintegrate into society, we really won't be addressing the root of the problem.''

The ``root of the problem'' is usually drug and alcohol abuse, and low educational achievement, according to a recent report for the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles. The study of 1,483 TDC inmates found that the typical prisoner has an eighth-grade education; more than 80 percent have drug- or alcohol-abuse problems.

Thus, the pre-parole programs require intensive substance-abuse counseling for most participants, and classes to help make up for limited social and employment skills.

Fred Nock, a young construction worker from the Texas panhandle, says he's found the program at the Corrections Corporation of America, north of Houston, ``too good to be true.'' Mr. Nock was convicted of selling drugs. ``I'll be steering clear of all that when I get out, I already know that. But I think this could help.''

CCA program director Charles Wood says his company ``really works hard on substance abuse,'' recognizing the high correlation between drugs and alcohol and crime. Also high on their list, Mr. Wood says, are problems like low self-esteem and low motivation, which can lead to substance abuse.

The CCA program, which does not include a work-release component, provides a full class in listening skills, as well as one in positive thinking. ``I use stories from the Bible to point out how people use their strengths,'' says Berry Wall, a counselor who teaches the positive thinking course. ``I tell them that without faith, you can't do anything.''

Despite CCA's intensive counseling, the company's contract with the state costs 10 percent less than conventional incarceration, Wood says.

According to Danny Downs, director of the Pricor program, another objective of his program is to prepare inmates to make their own decisions and take responsibility for themselves.

``The environment in TDC is not conducive to effective counseling,'' he says. ``In there, they tell the guys what to do - they have to,'' the former TDC employee says. This can have the unwanted effect of breaking down initiative and reinforcing dependence, Mr. Downs says. ``Here, on the other hand, they have one foot in the real world. They have to start thinking for themselves.''

Tristan says the contrast with TDC can be disorienting. ``The first thing they told us here was, `Don't call us `boss.''' But you get so used to saying `boss' when you're inside, it's hard to break that habit.''

Breaking old habits is what the pre-parole programs are all about. Some inmates find that expectation too difficult: About a quarter of program participants don't make the grade and are sent back to TDC.

Captain Daugherty says he knows of no studies that have followed program participants after their release to gauge their successful reintegration into society. But he adds that if letters from former inmates are an indication, the program is headed in the right direction.

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