Austin: New Sheriff Should Support Inmate Programs

Feb 27th, 2016 | By | Category: In The News, Travis County

By Diana Claitor, executive director of Texas Jail Project, February 27th, Austin American Statesman 

Romy Zarate, 37, knows the importance of the programming for people being held in Travis County Jail — a topic mostly ignored during the county’s recent sheriff candidate forums.

“I was probably in the county jail about four times. Without the programming, I was in and out,” says Zarate. “When I was in, I was planning where I would score when I got out; after the programming, I stayed out.”

The psychiatric services for inmates at the Travis County Correctional Complex provided her with the first diagnosis of a mental health condition that contributed to her lifelong battles. That diagnosis and resulting medication set Zarate on a path to treatment and wellness. Not only is Zarate out, she won the long battle to regain custody of her child and is working as a Via Hope Certified Peer Specialist, teaching and counseling women in the jail in Brownsville.

The counseling and education services that changed her life and the lives of others — tools and models necessary for successful re-entry — were only mentioned in passing during the February forums.

Each candidate for sheriff answered questions about how they would address issues at the jail, such as ending the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention program, providing better care and diversion for mentally ill inmates, reducing the numbers of people held pretrial in the jail, and improving re-entry services. All are serious problems that cry out for solutions.

While candidates did tout their support for diversion, mental services and resources to aid people in re-entry — outside of jail custody — they did not discuss the importance of Travis County’s unique in-house programming. Don Rios did read from the extensive list of approximately 30 classes, but neither he nor any other candidate explained how innovative programming requires careful planning and commitment by staff, all within the often-punitive culture of county jails. And yet these classes are absolutely critical for successful re-entry.

During the tenure of Sheriff Greg Hamilton, this kind of programming has expanded greatly. Classes and programs are taught by community partners such as Goodwill Inc. and Austin Community College, as well as by individual volunteers and professionals. Job readiness training, classes on reading improvement and 12-step support groups address the needs of people who might have had little support or education in their lives.

The Rise Up Program, which focuses on men with chronic substance abuse, is an example of longer, more involved programs. Zarate signed up for the widely respected program for women called PRIDE — or People Recognizing the Inherent Dignity of Everyone — that is designed to help women build stronger relationships with children and families. Classes start at 8:30 a.m. and require daily attendance. Completion of all classes, including parenting, domestic and sexual violence, money management and women’s health gives inmates the privilege of contact visits with a child through another program, Parents and Children Together.

Sitting and talking with your child wakes you up, says Zarate.

“It just breaks your heart and motivates you to get out and change. It humbles you and opens your eyes to your behavior and how it hurts others.”

The certificate that each woman receives upon completion was not just another pat on the back.

“That very certificate was vital in getting my son back from foster care and CPS once I was released,” says Zarate.

Each year, Travis County Correctional Complex has more than 49,900 bookings. We hope that whoever takes over the tough job of Travis County sheriff from Hamilton sees that in addition to making changes in jail operations, she or he should continue support of counseling and education services. Such programs will reduce recidivism and help inmates from diverse backgrounds and communities succeed on the outside.

Claitor is executive director of the Austin-based Texas Jail Project.

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