Less Job Assistance for Newly Released Inmates
By Raymond Thompson
For Reporting Texas
Each Tuesday, Mary Moran, the administrator of Travis County Offender Workforce Development Program, addresses a classroom of recently released inmates who have gathered at the Travis County Clerk’s office looking for help. She stresses that they need to strive to move from being “tax users to taxpayers.” Her job, which is to help make them more appealing to employers, is already a difficult task, but it has just become harder.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice canceled Project Rio (Reintegration of Offenders) last year as part of its effort to reach a mandatory 2.5 percent budget cut. While agencies across the state had to cut corners, the flow of people exiting Texas prison has not decreased at the same rate as Texas’ budget. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistic, more than 70,000 people were released from federal and state custody in 2010, compared with just under 60,000 in 2000.
Project Rio, which employed 155 people and had a $1.5 million budget to provide job services and training, combined the efforts of three state agencies: TDCJ, the Texas Workforce Commission and the Texas Youth Commission.
According to a 2012 Texas Investment Council report, 53 percent of the recently released inmates in the program found employment last year, down from 74 percent in 2009. The program’s success depended on its location. Jeri Houchins, administrative director of the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable, said that Project Rio was effective in progressive urban areas like Austin, but rural parts of Texas were not as successful implementing the program.
Moran, who worked as a Project Rio program specialist for nearly five years, said the program was successful in a few ways. It helped ex-inmates replace important documents like birth certificates, she said, and it was a source of information for inmates to navigate changes in the outside world that had occurred since they were incarcerated.
But the program was not without its faults. Former inmate Jacque Knight saw the program primarily as a referral service. “Project Rio, for the people coming out of TDCJ, is a joke,” he said. “It’s just money put in a system that don’t even work.” He said that the program failed to supply important information he needed as a worker with a criminal record.
Like Knight, Moran agreed that Project Rio acted more like a “Band-Aid” than a solution to issues faced by ex-inmates. That is one of the reasons she left Project Rio in 2007 to start the Travis County Offender Workforce Development Program.
Travis County is among the top five counties for offender releases in Texas. In 2010, more than 1,000 people sought help though the Travis County program, with nearly 400 finding work. Moran said that since Project Rio’s demise, traffic to her office has increased.
For the recently released, getting an interview after having checked a felony conviction box on a job application makes landing a job difficult. According to a report from the Legal Action Center, a law and policy nonprofit, Texas employers and licensing authorities can deny employment to those with criminal records for any reason.
A study by the Urban Institute says that ex-offenders who find work within two months of release fair better then offenders who are unemployed after 12 months. Those without jobs after a year have a 15 percent greater chance of being re-incarcerated.
Nationally, 67 percent of released offenders commit another crime within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A study conducted by the Pew Center on the States reports that 31.9 percent of 72,130 Texas inmates released in 2004 return to prison within three years.
Lisa Givens, the director of communications at the Texas Workforce Commission, said no new ex-offender-specific programs have been created to replace Project Rio. She said that ex-offenders will continue to have access to all of the resources available to the general public, which includes help matching skills to new careers, support searching for employment and assistant identifying job training opportunities.
But the end of Project Rio means one less resource for newly released ex-prisoners. “One agency can’t do it alone,” Moran said about her department. She only has one employee to assist her with the ex-offenders who come through her office.
Moran fears what the dwindling resources to help recently released inmates will mean. The roadblocks to employment that make it difficult for ex-inmates to support themselves and their families, she said, which can lead to frustration and recidivism. “They leave the families behind, and they are the ones that will suffer,” Moran said.