Behind Prison Walls: The Future Outside - KCBD NewsChannel 11 Lubbock

2/18/04

Behind Prison Walls: The Future Outside

NewsChannel 11 went inside the thick walls and barbed wire of the Preston E. Smith Unit in Lamesa. At the Smith Unit, the success of prisoners once they're released is a priority shared with our nation's President. 

In his State of the Union address, the President said, "This year, some 600,000 prisoners will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can't find work, a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison."  The people who run the Smith Unit know that fact is true and they've chosen to do something about it.

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Constantly under lock and key, classrooms at the Smith Unit aren't you're average place to learn a trade, but the  prison's electrical, plumbing, and mill working shops symbolize hope of a new life without crime for many an inmate. About six months or 600 to 900 hours spent there bring inmates up to the same industry standards as professionals in the freeworld.

Don Lawrence, Principal of the TDCJ's Windham School District, says, "If they get out there on a job, we know and the employer knows, as well as the student knows they can perform the task needed once they're on the job." None of it would be possible, though, without a special kind of teacher to educate behind bars with convicted criminals. 

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Juan Ramon is an electrical trade instructor at the Smith Unit.  "At first you feel like you're in prison like they do, but it's like everything else. You cope a lot and get used to it and once you do and give them a chance, they'll respect you." Juan says he does what he does for the sake of giving prisoners a second chance, "You'd be amazed how many people I get in here.  It's a wonderful feeling for them knowing that they're important also even though they're in prison." 

At the Smith Unit's Matress Factory, Plant Manager Danny Gruben guides prisoners to produce 40,000 prison issued matresses each year. "They're learning marketable job skills they can take with them when they leave here."

Danny says that's what makes the risks of his job worthwile, but at the same time, it's important to remember you are dealing with criminals. Gruben explains, "As we speak right now, those offenders are being strip searched outside. They're completely stripped and all their clothing and stuff is gone through before they get through the gate."

Before prisoners get through the gate leading to the freeworld, Smith Unit workers realize prisoners need the right support to put all their training to work.  That's where Project RIO comes in.  Project RIO Workforce Specialist, Mr. Hailey says, "Project RIO is reintergration of offender. What we try to do is help offenders get employment upon release."

Project RIO helps prisoners with resumes, applications, interviewing skills, and with that tough question. "How do you answer the question 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?' Even on paper, much less verbally in front of someone," says Hailey. 

Project RIO averages 70% placement of prisoners, making the program a proven success. Financial failure upon release all too often means an inmate will be back in the system costing taxpayers in Texas over $40 per day to feed, house, and clothe. Susan Zinn, Smith Unit Assistant Warden, says, "We dont' want them to return to a life of crime, we want them to be successful, have a good life and be part of a community, a productive part."

Project RIO's reach extends to the world outside prison walls. They partner with the Texas Workforce Commission and continue support for prisoners who are trying to become productive members of society.

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