Lawmakers address programs to reduce prison recidivism

By KATIE BALEVIC

Reggie Smith knew that when he left prison, he wanted to go back to school, get a job and stay out of the prison system. And he did – but he doesn’t want to an exception to the rule. 

 “When I got out of prison, it wasn’t the prison sentence that I had that hurt me,” Smith said at the Criminal Justice Panel of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus Summit. “It was all those extra judicial collateral consequences that slowed me down…Every step I took, I heard folks telling me I couldn’t do it. ‘You can’t do it because of this law,’ or ‘You can’t rent an apartment over here,’ or ‘you can’t go to this school.’ I did it anyway.” 

At the summit, participants discussed different types of legislation aimed at reducing recidivism. 

One effort was Texas’ Project RIO, or Re-Integration of Offenders, a 1985 program intended to help offenders prepare for their re-acclimation into society six months before their scheduled release. Project RIO was defunded in 2011, and some people, including Fort Bend District Attorney Brian Middleton, have called for the program’s refunding.

 “When someone had been telling you what time you wake up, what time you go to sleep, what you’re going to eat, how are you going dress for 10 years, and all of the sudden you’re thrown out there, it’s tough trying to re-acclimateyourself,” Middleton said.

 “If we are serious about reducing recidivism, about reducing mass incarceration, about reducing the need for private prisons, then a program such as Project RIO is definitely needed.”

Middleton said the program was successful when it was in the hands of the Texas Workforce Commission, but later, Project RIO was taken over by the Texas Criminal Justice Department, which he said wanted access to the program’s funding. 

 “From what I was told, they saw that money and figured they could do a better job on reducing recidivism themselves, so they ended up getting that money, and what happened was the results of success just started to drop,” Middleton said. 

“This is a program that is preventing people from coming back into prison, but [they gave] it to somebody whose job is to have people in prison. It didn’t make much sense.”

Middleton called for Project RIO to be refunded through the Texas Workforce Commission. 

However, Smith was skeptical about Project RIO’s effectiveness in reducing recidivism. 

 “We constantly go back to these old programs, and I’m not really talking about RIO, but I’m talking about RIO 2.0 and coming out with a new iteration of the same thing, trying to get different results,” Smith said. “In the community that I come from, the recovery community, that’s insanity.” 

Robert Lily, who was formerly incarcerated, said Project RIO did not work when he experienced it.

 “We need people that are not just going to be offering programsbut we need people that have compassion…when they deal with these [incarcerated] people,” Lily said. 

Smith suggested a new program that involves people who have experienced the same major issues affecting those in the criminal justice system. 

 “Peer support is a good vehicle for folks that have experience with mental health, substance abuse or justice involvement because it offers them a job and a career based on their lived experience,” Smith said

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, who chaired the TLBC panel, thanked those who spoke about their experiences. 

 “We have got to hear from you because we can say all the great things we want, but until we know how it really impacts you, it doesn’t really matter,” she said.