Project 180° brings ex-offenders back to share firsthand experiences, advice, reentry plans with Torres Unit students

Reprinted By Courtesy The ECHO

 

Former offenders passed back through prison gates of the Torres Unit, re-entering an environment they once hoped to never again experience. Administrators from Windham School District (WSD) and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) greeted them, and 400-plus offenders inside were ready to hear their success stories. They were part of the first ex-offender symposium called "Project 180°: Live for Something, Don't Die for Anything," and their mission was to help prepare WSD students for successful reentry into society.

Anticipation and excitement filled the Torres Unit gymnasium as students filled rows of chairs, watching the visitors assemble before them. Warden K. Woodall and WSD Principal K. Henry, who helped organize the two-session symposium, stood with the speakers from Project 180, and organizer and former offender Guillermo Almendarez made introductions. Like Almendarez, these volunteers were ex-offenders taking time from their busy schedules and sacrificing daily income and family time to speak with Windham students about freeworld life.

Project 180° was the brainchild of Almendarez and former offender James Chambers. While eating dinner at a Fort Worth restaurant, Chambers pitched the idea to Almendarez to come back and speak at prisons. They were seeking a way to give back to those who had helped them, and they wanted to tackle difficult issues.

"We felt like we were doing an injustice to the community here in prison because we've been telling everyone about how great it is out there, and not talking about the struggles," Almendarez said. "We wanted to show these men that it's a struggle for not just ex-cons, but everybody. We have to prove we are rehabilitated, law-abiding citizens. I know these guys can change. They just need somebody to speak life into their lives; that's why I do this."

Granados: Support family

The first speaker was Jonathan Granados, who shared an impressive catalogue of accomplishments. He is a certified inspector of sediment and erosion control, certified health safety official in construction, and an outreach trainer for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He was a WSD student who continued his professional training in the freeworld.

It was clear Granados worked hard and used continued education to enhance employability, despite his record. He quipped about recently sharing lunch with members of local area leadership groups, saying, "I sat at a table with these guys they've got Ph.Ds. and masters' degrees. I've got a Windham GED!"
Granados said he has a willingness to work for success which he didn't have in TDCJ in 1993. He said he was frequently involved in activities during incarceration that were not conducive to his future.

"I couldn't stop being stupid," he said. "Anger was boiling inside of me."

Granados said an older offender finally sat him down and advised him, "You need to save a piece of yourself to grow back for when you get out of here." Granados decided to get his priorities in order, change his behavior and get an education.

After his release from prison, Granados wanted to do "something legitimate" and worked in construction and a few odd-jobs before becoming part owner of a nationally-based environmental safety and health company. Since leaving prison, he's battled and beaten cardiac arrest and cancer, watched family members pass away, and experienced his young son being diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening genetic disorder. Despite these challenges, Granados keeps his focus on supporting his children and maintaining his career.

"The world is unforgiving, guys. It's a hard world out there. You have to pay bills. When you've got other mouths to feed, it's something else," he said.

Yet he ended his comments with humor: "I still can't watch what I wanna' watch on TV. I'll be watching the Spurs game, and all of a sudden, my kids come up and they wanna' watch Peppa Pig. And there ain't no channel check, either! Yes, my real joy is family."

Lazcano: Implement change

Next to speak was Ernesto Lazcano, who carefully described his personal history leading up to incarceration. The third of seven children and the son of an alcoholic father, he said he got into the street life while living in the Rio Grande Valley as a teenager. He served time in TDCJ and was released in 2011. He emphasized the importance of implementing change before release to better prepare for life on the outside. Lazcano warned his audience about some of the things incarcerated men and women confront upon release, and he urged them to start making personal changes immediately.

"You're going to have a lot of things coming at you. You're going to have a lot of responsibilities," he said. "You can't just change when you get out in the freeworld. You've got relationships, work, bills and parole. It's a lot to deal with. Society doesn't play, but that doesn't mean that being a convicted felon is going to keep you from accomplishing your goals. Cultivate relationships and don't limit yourself."

Constante: Control attitude

Ruben Constante was the next presenter. With a practiced cadence and a flair for public speaking, he addressed the dangers of a "victim mentality," speaking to students about family and examining attitudes.

"The victim mentality is the most toxic, self-defeating, destructive mentality you can have," he said. "It does three things. First, it disempowers you. When you blame someone else, you forfeit power. Oftentimes, in our humanity, we do things to try to compensate for what was 'taken' from us. Secondly, it incapacitates you and makes you feel unable to do anything about your situation. Lastly, it embitters you. You start hating people. You're angry all the time. You're mad because you got a set-off, didn't get a letter, or didn't get commissary money. You feel the whole world is conspiring against your existence. The truth is the world doesn't care about your existence; you have to care about your existence. People are not out to get you," he said.

"The biggest thing you're gonna fight is your attitude," he said. "The difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude."

Upon release, Constante set out to write the books from notes scribbled in a journal during his prison tenure. At the time his Project 180° presentation at Torres, Constante had written and published three books, started a nonprofit organization and began a ministry, "pouring himself" into those who are still incarcerated.

"The value of sharpening another man goes way beyond these walls," he said.

Aguilera: Man up

The third speaker was Rick Aguilera, who discussed the need to learn how to communicate properly with people, the scarcity of mature men in society, and the penitentiary mindset.

"The penitentiary mindset is a powerful force," he said. "People out there have never been to prison, so they don't understand prison mentality. You try to force it on them and they're going to shut you out and say, 'You know what? I don't want to be around you.' Out there is different from in here. There's a need for real men. Right now, there's a bunch of boys trapped in men's bodies in prison, and you see that on a daily basis. But when you go out there, man up, and let them see that you know who you are and you know what you're about; they will embrace that."

Estes: Value self

Next to speak was John Estes, who was not a former offender, but instead, a chaplaincy volunteer, mentor and leadership trainer with TDCJ. Equipped with a sense of humor and joy, he shared a special "exercise program."

"I want everyone to raise their right hand," he said. "Okay, now I want everyone to say 'I am a person of great value.'" The crowd participated. "Put your hands down. Okay, now everyone raise your right hand again." Hands shot back up a little quicker than the first time. "I want you to say it again: 'I am a person of great value.'" The crowd complied with a bit more enthusiasm. "You have now completed my entire exercise program. Twice!" he said as laughter broke out and the crowd gave him its attention.

Estes gave a short history of his work in prison and described the importance of selling yourself, and curbing personal pride in the future.

"After release, you might have to sit people down at work and tell them that you've made mistakes. Be honest. Don't lie. You need to respect your boss and respect authority. There will be times when your boss gets onto you because he's in a bad mood, and other times it will be for something you deserve. Sit there and take that respectfully."

He moved on to other topics such as family, marriage and school.

"Your family is important, and you need to be important to your family," Estes said. "Write them regardless of whether or not they write back, to show them that you're not the same immature individual you were when you got to prison."

Touching on the value of marriage and long-term relationships, Estes imparted words of advice and universal wisdom to the men.

"For the first few years you answer everything, 'Yes, dear,'" he joked, then emphasized the importance of communicating and working things out immediately. He said he and his wife of 48 years came to an agreement: "We're not going to bed tonight until we fix the problem from today, and there have been some late nights. You need to ask, 'What needs to be done here?' and be willing to compromise when problems arise."

Estes also addressed a fallacy about school attendance in TDCJ that can thwart offenders' goals.

"I know sometimes it can get difficult in class and you think you can just bide your time until you graduate, but you need to work harder," he said. "You need to thank those teachers in WSD because they care about you. They do not assume your life's ambition is to stay in prison."

Almendarez: Work hard

Almendarez, the organizer of the event and cofounder of Project 180°, was the next presenter. He said he was heavily involved in gangs and their mentality, and spent more than 18 years in TDCJ. He had a "wake-up call" while in medium custody, so he got into school and realized he needed an entire personality makeover.

"I would have died for my gang. When I was younger, I mistakenly would have died for my homeboys," Almendarez said, "but then I became a man in prison. I realized I had to change the way I walk, the way I talk, and the way I act." He credited his desire for change to skills learned in WSD's Cognitive Intervention and pre-release CHANGES program.

Because of his criminal record he was prepared to live on minimum wage after release but, fortunately, a well-known recruiting agency helped him get hired by a major automotive manufacturer. He did not go home to his old neighborhood and negative influences, but instead focused on his new career. After years of hard work, he said he earns upward of $100,000 per year in legitimate work.

"Don't feel like you have to work more," he said. "If you're happy with a $13 an hour job, do that, but if you want to live in a big house on a ranch and drive a really nice car, you're going to have to work hard," Almendarez said.

"I know you guys can change," he said. "You guys are valuable. You just need somebody to come and show you that. That's why we did this Project 180° symposium."

Former offenders Javier Gaitan and James Chambers closed the event with their personal stories.

Gaitan: Utilize time

Gaitan spoke on stewardship of one's resources and establishing a good reputation. He highlighted the value of educational and vocational opportunities, emphasizing the need for using time wisely while incarcerated.

"If you are choosing not to change, I hope you don't get released to my community and mess it up for the rest of us," Gaitan warned. "To be prepared, we must plan for release, not just coast along and hope things go well. This is not something we are born into, it must be learned. Learning to be a good steward of resources while incarcerated drastically reduces risky behavior upon release and decreases the likelihood to reoffend."

Chambers: Stay healthy

Chambers stressed the importance of maintaining emotional health while incarcerated and having a good work ethic. In prison, Chambers got involved in church, assumed a vocation and graduated from college. On paper, he was ready to succeed, but during his incarceration he had unconsciously incorporated a defense mechanism: Chambers became emotionally detached.

"While it took time to emotionally detach in prison, it took more to reattach once I got out," Chambers said.

Once released, and much to his harm, he resorted to substance abuse. Chambers said he was soon homeless and alone. With help, he got sober and began moving along the road to recovery. After taking a personal inventory, he was able to rid himself of the unrealistic expectations many ex-offenders place on themselves upon release.

He found a job working for minimum wage, but worked as if it were his dream job, thereby gaining recognition and receiving a promotion. He now manages 80 workers and earned more than $200,000 dollars last year but, what's most important, he is happy with the man he has become.

"Do your best in all things," Chambers said. "It is contagious, and provides you with opportunities to become a person others will trust."