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Unchained: Texas jail programs help correct inmates for better life

The Lubbock County Detention Center offers rehab and educational opportunities to reduce the number of inmates who reoffend upon release

By Sarah Rafique
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

LUBBOCK, Texas Wearing a hunter green prison uniform with “Lubbock County Detention Center” written on it, Brandon Martinez slouched in a chair and rested his tattooed hands on his knees. The inmate was soft-spoken as he recalled being embarrassed by his latest offense and spending the last 15 years in and out of jail.

But, he also talked about the day he completes his five-year sentence, which was handed down to him on Tuesday; the day he’ll return to the county jail to volunteer as a mentor to inmates; the day he can prove to his family that this time, things will be different.

“I’ve been in and out of the system ever since I was 17, 16 years old,” Martinez said during an interview with A-J Media. “I’ve been in jail mostly all my life and I’m tired of it. I’m 31 years old and I want to better myself. I don’t need this.”

Martinez has been arrested at least six times in the last decade; his latest on May 4, 2015, for burglary of a habitation with intent to commit a felony.

Last October, the inmate started participating in several rehabilitative programs the jail offers. Six months later, he caught himself getting emotional and crying in the shower.

“That light bulb just went ‘ding’ and I was just thinking to myself, I was talking to myself like ‘Wow, I really did it,’” Martinez said. “I really did change.”

The Lubbock County Detention Center, which housed 1,099 inmates Friday afternoon, tries to reduce the number of inmates who reoffend upon release by offering rehab and educational opportunities as well as optional religious services for inmates to participate in.

The jail currently has an 89 percent recidivism rate, meaning the inmates have been incarcerated at least once before, said Lubbock County Sheriff Kelly Rowe.

“Sixty percent of the population sitting in this jail today are in on an addictive-related offense and although they’re not charged directly with manufacturing, possession or delivery, they’re in here for the burglary, the robbery or the theft they did to support the habit,” Rowe said. “That alone is enough to tell us we need to be doing more to try to get (to) these folks while we got them.”

Why recidivism?

When the shakes start to set in and hardened addicts need their next fix, they don’t think about the consequences of their actions or ending up in jail, Rowe said. All that enters their mind is getting money — any way they can — to pay for their drug of choice.

“We’ve got to be addressing as many of the core issues as we can,” he said. “These folks are a member of our society to begin with, they’re a part of our communities and we’ve got to get them back to the point where they’re a taxpayer, not a tax burden.”

With each jail bedding cell costing $56,000 to build, and an additional $40 to $65 or more a day spent per inmate, the community will benefit from criminals who can reform and keep themselves out of jail, Rowe said.

“Deep down, everybody has a vested interest in these people getting out of jail, being successful and being a benefit, not a burden,” Rowe said. “There’s people that need to be in this facility, there’s bad folks out there that need to be kept away from the rest of civil society, they need to go to prison. But the biggest majority of our population, they’ve got a debt to pay, but we don’t need to have them in a recurring cycle.”

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires correctional facilities to provide “programs of rehabilitation, education and recreation for inmates confined in county and municipal jail facilities under its jurisdiction,” according to its website.

For some jails, that’s having part-timers coming in once or twice a week to lead Alcoholics Anonymous or religious classes to meet the basic requirements.

In Lubbock County, however, Rowe said the detention center has upped its programs, relying, in part, on hundreds of volunteers from the community.

The jail’s chaplain, Perry Hallford, said they currently have about 200 volunteers, with more than half of them in the religious department.

On Wednesday, A-J Media met with 14 volunteers from a dozen churches and organizations in Lubbock who hold Bible studies and church services at the jail, as well as provide GED classes, resume-building skills and information on how to apply to college.

Some churches have even established a permanent location at the jail, such as Experience Life’s Freedom Campus, which was opened in 2014.

“It doesn’t matter what their past looks like, what the present looks like. God loves us all,” Freedom Campus volunteer Parker Bollinger said. “Something happens that is powerful. Walls get broke down and then they start to see themselves for who they really are and how God sees them, not something that they’ve acclimated into. It gets so easy, they put these labels on themselves and they start to accept it and that label is a lie.”

In additional to in-jail programs, Rowe said better transitional housing for inmates integrating back into society is needed.

“We can do all the things we want to while they’re in here and these guys can enjoy great success, but the moment we’re done with them, which is the moment that judge says you’ve satisfied your sentence, we’re done,” he said. “If they fall right back into the same neighborhood, the same group of friends, the same families that are probably not going to be the most supportive, then we can’t be shocked when they (get arrested again).”

Getting a GED

Before getting arrested on a drug charge, Angelica Riojas said she worked two, sometimes three jobs to take care of her four children.

She regrets dropping out of high school in ninth grade but once she was incarcerated, the 31-year-old decided she wanted to use her time in jail wisely.

Although she had a 10th-grade reading comprehension, other subjects brought her down to an eighth-grade level. Still, within four months, Riojas passed all the tests she needed to get her GED.

“At first I was hesitant, it took about a month … before I said ‘Nah, I can’t just sit here.’ I was crying. I was feeling sorry for myself. I read the Bible, but I couldn’t understand what it was saying,” Riojas said. “Unfortunately, I’ve done drugs and I tell everybody it’s killed my brain cells; not killed them, but it’s put them to sleep. I was reviving them and my brain would hurt, but hey it’s done.”

Riojas’s teacher, Pamela Stutsman, teaches adult education in Lubbock as part of the Region 17 Education Service Center, and also volunteers her time teaching inmates at the jail. Currently, her students at the jail range from first-grade through high school level.

Stutsman recalled one student who was frustrated because he only improved from a second-grade reading level to third grade. Still, she encouraged him by pointing out how he passed an entire grade in just 40 days.

“I’ve had people doing pre-k work going into sixth grade within a year. I give them stories of people who started out just like them and if they worked hard they can progress. Just because you’re doing first-grade work, that’s not the end of the story,” she said. “I believe very strongly that every single person in my class can be successful and can attain the goals they want to attain if they are willing to work on it.”

Whenever an inmate graduates, they get a cap and gown ceremony and the rare chance to get cookies and a cake for their pod, or cell area.

Stutsman said more inmates have been interested in her class than usual as her students tell their cellmates about their success with the program.

Since the jail became a GED testing site last year, about a dozen inmates have graduated and received their diplomas – something that will help the inmates be successful as they are released and reintegrate back into society, Rowe said.

“We have a lot of folks in here that don’t’ have those core essential life skills,” Rowe said. “We assume that just because we can all balance our checkbook, manage our money, that everybody else can do it. And that’s not withstanding, some addiction problem that’s looming over the top of them, that their only focus in life is getting that next fix. That creates a lot of the issues.

Stutsman said inmates who began the GED program but leave the jail for one reason or another can pick up where they left off at a public GED site.

Although Martinez hasn’t received his GED yet, he looks forward to the day he finally gets it and is able to attend college and become a counselor.

“Don’t end up like me. Go to school, get you an education, get you a real good job. I never had that,” Martinez said. “There’s times I regret not going back to school and not finishing. My advice to other kids is it’s not worth coming here, you don’t want to see your family through a window for a 20-minute visit.”

Finding their religion

Living Stone Pastor Cameron Mikael wasn’t interested ministering at the detention center.

“I didn’t want to do it at all,” he said. “I always, I grew up (thinking) that these guys deserve to – they don’t deserve anything in here, they deserve whatever they got.”

After visiting with the inmates three months ago, his perspective changed.

“Seeing the guys, seeing the stories, seeing they’re just a bunch of hurt men,” he said, “that was kind of what God showed me through it, that these guys, regardless of what they’ve done, still deserve to know that Jesus is in love with them.”

Although religious programs are optional, Rowe said inmates benefit from it both in and outside of jail since it builds a relationship with the Lubbock community and churches, which provide resources to help keep inmates on the right path once they are released.

“(If) they’ve been released, the church provides them a support structure … people to call if they start to feel like they’re about to fall back into something,” Rowe said.

Martinez, who will be transferred to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison by the end of the month, will miss the programs he’s been able to engage in at the county jail. The 520 days he’s already spent at the Lubbock jail will count toward his five-year sentence.

Until he leaves, Martinez hopes to continue to pass out Bibles to other inmates. He is one of only two inmates who Chaplain Hallford has ever trusted to help him out in the jail.

“When I’m around him, I get motivated…. I just don’t like being in my pod because people talk about drugs, they talk about ‘I’m going to go back to doing this,’” Martinez said. “I can’t be around that. I have to go somewhere else, walk outside.”

Hallford said Martinez earned the opportunity to help him through consistently obeying the rules and structure of programs he participated in.

“Brandon’s changed a lot. I think he’s going to do really well for himself because he’s chose to do more for himself,” Hallford said. “He’s a totally different person. … I’ve seen him kind of come out of his shell and share things, just be honest about where he’s at, what he’s done good, what he’s done bad, let’s pray about it, let’s talk about it.”

Believing in change

At first, the guards thought something was wrong with Martinez since they had grown familiar to his attitude due to his history of arrests.

“(They) were all like ‘are you the right Brandon,’” he said. “They were just surprised to see me real respectful. They were like, ‘Wow, Brandon, are you OK? Are you sick? Do you need to go to medical?”

Martinez admits he didn’t always respect the guards. But, after participating in the jail’s programs, his attitude has changed.

Still, inmates like Martinez often struggle to convince their families the changes will last once they’re released from jail and faced with society’s temptations.

Martinez hasn’t had any visitors since his incarceration, partly because his family doesn’t want to picture him in jail. When he does get to visit with his family during court dates, he shows them his certificates, showcasing the life skills he’s learned and how he’s been baptized, but they look at it and toss it aside, he said.

“I’m really the knucklehead in the family. They don’t believe me that I’m changing,” Martinez said. “I talk to them on the phone, I tell them I’ve been changing. They’ll say ‘OK,’ they don’t see me changing. I have to prove it to them.”

For now, Martinez is trying to stay on the straight path. He’s even earned an opportunity to counsel other inmates, pulling them aside to ask if they need someone to talk to and reminding them that he’s there for them.

“That responsibility, it made me feel real special. I never had a big responsibility and it was a thrill,” he said. “I didn’t care about their charges, I didn’t care what they were in there for. I didn’t look at them that way. I looked at them like as a friend, as somebody who they could look up to. I wanted to help them.”

Volunteers say one of the most rewarding things about it is seeing how inmates better themselves with every visit.

Riojas said she’s transformed from a shy, timid inmate to a confident woman with goals of attending college and becoming a radiologist.

“(I want) to show other inmates that it’s not as bad as you think it is. I mean, it is jail, there is roll call three times a day and there is certain bad things about it,” Riojas said. “If you take it the way you’re supposed to take it, as a correctional facility, it actually corrects you in your road to life again.”