DOORS initiative offers hope to Dallas area ex-offenders

"When a crime is committed, we all pay – families are broken, tax dollars are needlessly spent and victims are created. Repeat offending or recidivism, as it is commonly known, must end. It is hurting us all."
— Christina Crain, President and CEO, DOORS (501 c3)

Former chairman and member of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice

Crossroad n.: a crucial point especially where a decision must be made.
— Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, 11th Edition

One of the most daunting challenges the newly-released ex-offender faces is the reentry process. Reentry requires the ex-offender to decide to do everything within his/ her power to transition from living a life in which all necessities are provided free to living a life where the basics must be procured by effort and resourcefulness. The newly-released ex-offender must go from being controlled by externalities like count times and work calls to being directed by internalities such as initiative and self-motivation. The transition from rigid control that characterizes prison to the autonomy (and uncertainty) of life in mainstream society can be extremely difficult.

Seventy-five percent of offenders returning to society have a history of substance abuse disorders. More than 70 percent of prisoners with serious mental illness also have a substance abuse disorder.

The transition process for stable ex-offenders can be difficult; an ex-offender with issues such as mental illness, drug addiction, and lack of job skills and/or education is far more likely to return to prison. Without proper assistance, the ex-offender's successful social reentry can become an almost impossible task.

Barrier n.: something immaterial that impedes or separates
— Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, 11th Edition

The plight of the newly-released offender and the numerous difficulties facing them are not lost on Christina Crain, former chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. Crain, an attorney, believes the foremost barrier of ex-offenders is "not understanding and being able to access the necessary services and resources needed to successfully reenter society." To help ex-offenders surmount this barrier, Crain has initiated a revolutionary concept called DOORS, a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

She describes the creation of DOORS:

"When I served as chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and since that time, there has been one item that I have struggled with – how we can spend time, money and resources (tax dollars) on an individual while incarcerated or supervised and have no real system in place for their reentry into the free world?... it makes no sense. That is where DOORS comes in. I am personally committed to this mission."

Crain created the DOORS Reentry Program "to fill the gap that exists between the offender leaving prison/ jail and accessing the services/resources necessary to make his/her reentry into the free world successful." She also said, "DOORS is not just another reentry service program, but rather THE reentry clearinghouse/hub to allow the exoffender access to what he/she needs to succeed. Through our established partnerships with reentry service providers, DOORS becomes the 'reentry one-stop shop' for the ex-offender to start meeting his/her goals of living a new life."

As a one-stop reentry resource and "reentry clearinghouse," DOORS has all reentry resources and organization information available at one location, which allows for "cross-networking, collaboration, cohesion and a stronger service model for the offender."

"Clients can access DOORS by way of three portals," she said. "These include self-referral — the client seeks DOORS out on his/her own by way of phone, letter, email or walk-in visit; community referral — the client is referred to DOORS by one of DOORS' established partners, or another organization or person; and grants — the client is part of a grant (private/public) which has been awarded to DOORS or other organization that has collaborated with DOORS."

To actualize its novel philosophy, DOORS provides the newly-released ex-offender with crucial services such as clothing, dental and medical. DOORS also provides mental health services since the prevalence of serious mental illness is two to four times higher among prisoners than it is in the general population. In addition, DOORS offers assistance with educational needs, recognizing that two in five prison and jail inmates lack a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Even if an ex-offender doesn't have a car, they can still take advantage of the DOORS program because DOORS provides transportation access. Housing assistance is also offered because many DOORS participants require it. More than 10 percent of those entering prisons and jails are homeless in the months before their incarceration, which means they will have nowhere to go upon release. Legal advice is still another vital service provided by DOORS for its clients.

Of all the requirements for success after prison, gainful employment is one of the most important since it is the key to self-sufficiency.

In prison, employment is guaranteed, but in society, employment is not assured. A large three-state study found that less than half of released prisoners had secured a job upon their return to the community. Job skill assessment and training and job referrals are another cornerstone provision offered by DOORS.

The ex-offender is not left to navigate these services alone. Each ex-offender is assigned to a caseworker who assesses their individual needs through four separate assessment tools:

1. The Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (LS/CMI) — used to identify general risk and crimogenic need factors

2. The Behaviors and Experiences Inventory (BEI) — used to measure past and present behavior

3. The Benefits Calculator — used to identify financial eligibility and resources for needed assistance within the Dallas community

4. The Career Key — used to assess job interests and skill sets; assists in developing a highly personalized plan of action with other nonprofits in accomplishing stated goals.

 The process entails creating a targeted custom plan based on the above four assessments and subsequent referrals to service providers (nonprofits, vendors and partners) that assist DOORS clients in meeting their goals. DOORS also focuses on job placement assistance including resume writing, mock job interviews and dress/appearance assistance.

Client follow-through and staff follow-up is vital to overall success. For that reason, DOORS caseworkers assist the client's progress by individually monitoring the individual's targeted custom plan for a period of up to four years.

DOORS also acts as a "Reentry Educator and Trainer", educating others about specific needs and issues concerning newly-released ex-offenders. DOORS  provides training for those wishing to become certified in the Level of Service/Case Management Inventory Assessment tool process for their clients. Seminars, symposiums, sponsored events and training classes are conducted for organizations, providers, families and the public who share DOORS' passion for reducing recidivism. DOORS representatives also do public speaking on a variety of topics in the community.

"DOORS serves any adult living or relocating to Dallas County, regardless of gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, who has been formerly incarcerated or under some sort of criminal supervision," Crain said. "The one exception is that DOORS does not currently serve adults who are required to register as sex offenders. We do, however, attempt to locate an appropriate organization to serve them if they contact us. We never turn someone away without a place to go. That is our motto."

Unlock vt: to free from restraints or restrictions
— Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, 11th Edition

In order to accomplish its goals, DOORS relies on a well-educated, devoted staff of professionals who comprise its executive board, board of directors and advisory board. The DOORS Board of Directors consists of both current and former judges in addition to lawyers and mental health specialists. The DOORS Advisory Council has nearly 50 members who are also either former or current attorneys, corrections professionals, politicians or judges. Who better to help ex-offenders unlock the doors of promise than those who have built careers around framing, interpreting, and defending the laws of society?

Fueled by its passion to serve the formerly incarcerated and their families, DOORS has an ambitious five year plan that includes:

1. Building a state-of-the-art network, complete with all major stakeholders at the local, state and national levels, who also desire to serve ex-offenders and their loved ones

2. Becoming a premier reentry system. According to Crain, DOORS has aspirations of expanding to other major cities in the state: "Although we are currently located only in Dallas, we view this as temporary. Our vision at DOORS is to build a state-of-the-art reentry network, complete with all major stakeholders at the local, state and national levels that share our passion for serving those who have been formerly incarcerated or have been under some sort of criminal supervision. To that end, it is our hope to become the reentry system utilized by the state of Texas."

3. Committing to be an unprecedented educational model in the Metroplex, and state wide, to expand and diversify the education and training DOORS currently facilitates for families, expert service providers, and the community.

4. Committing to being a good steward of the resources entrusted to DOORS by the community and others to accomplish it ends.

Breakthrough n: an offensive thrust that penetrates and carries beyond a defensive line in warfare
— Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, 11th Edition

In a study that looked at recidivism in more than 40 states, at least four in 10 offenders returned to state prison within three years of release. The objective of DOORS is to reduce the occurrence of recidivism by providing services to the ex-offender, immediately upon release. These services address issues that most frequently lead to recidivism: drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, etc.

"Here is what a client can expect when he/she comes to DOORS," Crain said:

1. "A comprehensive assessment utilizing evidence-based assessment tools that gather information on general risk facts, behavioral issues, benefit assistance needs, and career/job skills factors,

2. "An individualized plan of action that outlines specific community resources and services that can best help meet his/her reintegration goals, such as housing and transportation needs: medical, mental and dental health needs; substance abuse treatment; legal services; obtaining pertinent documents (social security card, driver's license, birth certificate etc.),

3. "Referrals and linkages to employment/job placement programs,

4. "On-going case management of the client's progress by individually working through his/her plan of action for a period of up to four years."

But no matter how complex or ambitious its program, DOORS can ultimately only be judged by how well it actually meets the needs of its target clientele. The feedback from ex-offenders who have utilized DOORS reentry services has been overwhelmingly positive.

"[DOORS] helped me find a job and even assisted me with apparel for the job. …I highly recommend their service to anyone who wants the next step forward in life," said one client. Another states, "DOORS helped me understand what my strengths and weaknesses were and how to handle my problems differently. I would recommend [DOORS] to anyone who needs help getting back into society." Another client said, "The people at DOORS were very helpful and are continuing to provide me positive support." DOORS also has stirred up the interest of many offenders who are approaching release.

"We are thrilled to have the opportunity to run our ad in The ECHO," Crain said, "To date, DOORS has received close to 1,000 letters from TDCJ offenders wishing to seek our assistance. We have responded to each offender with a letter indicating how to contact us upon release. We have already had several of these offenders visit us and become DOORS clients."

In addition to all of the services that DOORS provides post incarceration, there are plans to take the process a step further in the form of a TDCJ pre-release pilot program.

"DOORS will take what it does in the free world for clients into TDCJ pre-release so that the offender (upon release to Dallas) is ready to hit the ground running," Crain said.

The DOORS program has numerous support services, devoted staff and plans for expansion both in and outside of the prison system. DOORS is poised to help thousands of ex-offenders have positive breakthroughs to reentering society.

 

Reprinted with permission from The ECHO

Visit the Doors Initiative website at: http://www.dallasdoors.org

 

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Each day WSD correctional educators pass through prison gates across Texas to work with men and women incarcerated within TDCJ.
An offender at the Polunsky Unit prepares for graduation after earning his GED through the Windham School District.
Auto specialization students in a West Texas prison learn auto maintenance skills, preparing themselves for future employment as professional mechanics.
Female offenders in Gatesville, Texas, study to improve their literacy skills during a WSD academic class.
Vocational and academic skills are integrated in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as this Small Engine Repair class in Huntsville, Texas.
Offenders often experience academic success for the first time in a Windham classroom.