'One day at a time'

By Cody Stark, Reprinted courtesy of The Huntsville Item

W. Thomas sits on a bench outside the bus stationW. Thomas sits on a bench outside the bus station on 12th Street, grinning as he enjoys his first cigarette in two years. Thomas served the past 24 months in a Texas prison for narcotics charges.

It's Friday morning and Thomas is one of about 40 former inmates who just walked out of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Huntsville "Walls" Unit as free men after paying their debts to society. He's waiting for the Greyhound bus to show up to take him to his hometown of Houston where he intends to begin again.

Thomas hopes to keep the Bradshaw Unit in Rusk in the rearview mirror.

"Right now I have a lot of family support," the 45-year-old said. "I'm going to take it one day at a time. I'm going to reunite with my family and we are going to sit down and plan on how I'm going to proceed with my future."

If numbers say anything, Thomas has a chance to make it on the outside. Texas currently boasts one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation.

Approximately 21.4 percent of inmates released from TDCJ return to prison within three years of being released. That is down almost 10 percent from 1997.

"While there are a number of factors that have led to fewer offenders returning to prison, one of the most significant came in 2007. At that time, the agency faced offender population projections that would exceed our capacity," TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said.

"The Texas Legislature had to decide whether to invest in building new prisons (three facilities) or invest in treatment and alternatives to incarcerations.

The Legislature chose the latter, investing approximately $240 million in various strategies, much of it devoted to front-end diversion programs, but also including treatment while incarcerated and alternatives to revocation for parolees who commit technical violations."

Clark added that the state has continued to invest in those initiatives. That has led to a decreasing prison population. As of November 2015, TDCJ was home to 148,204 inmates. In 2007, the population was 155,319.

As a result of the population decrease, TDCJ has closed three facilities over the past eight years.

To prepare inmates for release, the agency provides educational opportunities, rehabilitative programs and reentry initiatives.

"While this is one of the lowest (recidivism) rates in the nation, we recognize there is always more work to be done," Clark said. "The ultimate goal is to get that number as close to zero as possible."

'One day at a Time'J. White sits on the opposite end of the bus station bench from Thomas, working to attach a buckle he just bought to his belt. He also was just released from the "Walls" following a two-year stint at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas for possession of a controlled substance. While he was incarcerated at the Beto Unit in Anderson County for a previous charge, White took advantage of learning a trade through one of the many vocational training programs offered by TDCJ through the Windham School District (WSD). Even though he's a repeat offender, White is optimistic this time that his welding skills will help him avoid going back to prison.

"I'm going to get a job and go to work," the 48-year-old Dallas native said as he paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

"I hope that someday I can open up my own welding business, but right now I'm concentrated on finding a place to live so I can begin to get back on my feet now that I'm free."

The WSD offers inmates the opportunity to turn things around and develop skills to help them once they are released from prison.

Besides vocational studies, inmates can take reading, math, science, social studies and language, which includes writing classes to prepare them for the test to get their General Educational Development (GED) diploma.

The district also offers behavioral and life skills programs, all with the goal to put inmates in a position to secure higher paying jobs upon their release.

In 2015, 66 percent of the 70,311 inmates released from Texas prisons participated in one or more Windham educational programs during the history of their incarceration.

"Job readiness reduces recidivism by helping men and women transform their lives by becoming valued employees, better family members and contributors to their communities once they return home," Windham spokeswoman B. Kiser said.

"WSD's programs are taught by certified teachers and include high-level vocational, academic and life skills instruction, giving many students their first opportunity to experience academic success, prepare for the current job market and develop the confidence needed to continue making positive life changes and stay out of prison."

Thomas was working toward taking the GED test in March when news came that he was being released. His plan is to finish up at community college so he can get a "good job."

For now, Thomas knows he has a major hurdle to clear to ensure this is his last stay behind bars — beating addiction.

"I have written a few treatment centers in Austin and a few of them have responded to me," Thomas said between drags off his cigarette. "Me and my family are going to sit down and talk about it. We'll see what's to come."