Turning inmates into taxpayers, the Texas way

Texas locks up the most people of any state, but also leads in job programs for prison inmates.

When John got out of prison two years ago, he had a simple goal: to return to house painting and get his life started again. He thought he had a good chance this time: He'd gone to job fairs in prison to learn how to behave in interviews and had taken classes to control his anger.

But when he applied for a job at a construction site, he had no idea how valuable those skills would be.

"I figured I would start at the bottom, and work my way up," says John, a muscular man with steel-gray hair who asked that his name not be used. "But out of the clear blue sky, they said, 'OK, you're going to be our foreman.' I was making $20.34 an hour." A year and a half later, he'd started his own business.

Bootstrap success stories like John's are perhaps unusual, in part because up to two-thirds of former inmates return to prison, and in part because his apparent rehabilitation occurred in Texas, a state renowned for being tough on criminals. But with a lycra-tight job market, companies are searching in unusual places for workers. Some go so far as to hold job fairs in prisons to attract the most qualified inmates. And it is states like Texas, never comfortable with the word "progressive," that are at the forefront of rehabilitation, giving inmates the job and life skills they need to make it in the world of work.

"Texas has been one of the most innovative states in its prison job programs, and their job training has been a model for our federal prison programs," says Sylvia McCollum, inmate placement administrator for the US Bureau of Prisons in Washington, adding, "We joke about this being the ultimate punishment, making every person who comes out of here a taxpayer."

Called Project RIO (Re-Integration of Offenders), Texas's prison job program began during the early 1990s, when the state was involved in the largest prison expansion in the state's history.

Today, with the largest prison population in America, at 163,190 inmates, Texas also provides job training and life-skills classes in 85 of its 112 facilities, reaching more inmates than any other prison job program in the US. Most of these classes are provided through the Windham Independent School District, which operates entirely within the prison system.

Project RIO officials estimate that some 30 percent, or 21,000 of the 140,000 inmates in state-run prisons, are participating in job-training classes. Of those RIO graduates who were released in 1997 and '98, 16 percent have returned to prison within two years, versus 23 percent of all releasees. Among high-risk offenders (mostly property-crime offenders ages 18 to 35), Project RIO graduates were 5 percent less likely to return to prison, with a 21 percent recidivism rate versus 26 percent of all high-risk offenders.

Statistics aside, Project RIO's biggest impact is felt because it goes beyond teaching the mere nuts and bolts of auto mechanics and furniture upholstery. Like other innovative job programs in New York, North Carolina, and Georgia, Project RIO offers classes that help inmates learn work values, interviewing techniques, how to get along with supervisors, and how to control anger.

The toughest thing that RIO graduates have to overcome is "that attitude," says Roberto White, a Project RIO caseworker who helps place former inmates in jobs once they get out of prison. It's an attitude of anger toward society, mixed with a sense of being owed a second chance, that can often turn off employers.

"Most of the guys don't have that attitude by the time they get here," says Mr. White, noting that most have sanded down their rough edges in "life skills" classes. "They come here because they need help, and want to do what it takes to get going."

For Wes Hardman, who hires employees at the Austin-area Sears & Roebuck store, Project RIO has become a valuable source of reliable workers. Mr. Hardman says he hired all three of the Project RIO candidates he's seen, and they rank among his best employees.

"I think it's been an untapped resource for quite some time," says Hardman. "I get 80 or 90 applications a week, and in doing that I've come across people who have randomly mentioned having done jail time. But the difference is that the people who have come through Project RIO have made a change in their lives. There is some acknowledgment that they have made a mistake but have done something about it to overcome their problem."

Programs like Project RIO, which focus on rehabilitation, mark a departure of sorts for American criminal justice, which has recently focused on punishment. Paul Gendreau, a former prison administrator, says the shift is occurring because so-called tough-on-crime approaches have failed in their mission of reducing crime.

"We know what doesn't work: it's boot camps, scared-straight programs, electronic monitoring, mandatory drug testing, anything that uses threats," says Mr. Gendreau, now a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Brunswick in St. John, Canada. "People who believe in these programs are solidly committed to magical thinking."

But even programs that offer a leg up on life will have only a marginal effect on the overall crime rate, Gendreau says, since the sort of people who qualify for job programs are usually self-selecting, nonviolent offenders who wouldn't have returned to crime in the first place. Such programs reduce repeat criminal behavior by an average of 10 to 15 percent.

Frank Cullen, a criminal-justice professor at the University of Cincinnati, says that job programs that provide only job skills aren't going after the heart of the problem, which is that many career criminals are simply people who have never learned social skills. "It would be like if you had raised children, but only gave them lessons in math or English, without any focus on values and no means of self-control," says Dr. Cullen. "When people return to crime, it's usually not because they don't have a job."

But for John, the former felon who runs his own construction company, there is no question that a Project RIO meeting in prison was the turning point in his life. He still remembers the speaker that day, a well-dressed African-American man who spoke with the passion of a preacher about the value of work, and the need for better values.

"Had I not gone to that meeting, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today," says John, sipping soda at a South Austin burger joint. He also wouldn't be in a position to hire employees, a number of whom are themselves graduates of Project RIO.

"I was given a fair shake," John says of his hiring policies. "I'd like to be in a position to see more people given a fair shake."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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