Conroe, Montgomery-area nonprofits tackle offender re-entry

(Eva Vigh, Kaitlyn Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)
(Eva Vigh, Kaitlyn Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Eva Vigh, Kaitlyn Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)

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Newly released offenders are greeted with these signs once they leave Huntsville Unit. (Eva Vigh/Community Impact Newspaper)
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Newly released offenders are greeted with these signs once they leave Huntsville Unit. (Eva Vigh/Community Impact Newspaper)
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(Eva Vigh, Kaitlyn Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)
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(Eva Vigh, Kaitlyn Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)
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(Eva Vigh, Kaitlyn Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)
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(Eva Vigh, Kaitlyn Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)
About 15 miles north of Montgomery County sits the Huntsville Unit—a state penitentiary that serves as a Texas Department of Criminal Justice regional release center for male offenders. On any given day, over 100 men are released from this prison to counties across the state, including Montgomery County, said Jeff Springer, the founder of Suit Up Ministries, a local nonprofit that teaches men skills to become better fathers.

Springer said he has served coffee to these newly released offenders in partnership with Hebrew Coffee, a Houston-area coffee company. Some men have been incarcerated for years and do not know what a latte or a cappuccino is, he said. Others ask him for addresses of nearby halfway homes.

“I feel helpless,” Springer said. “How long does a cup of coffee, a pat on the back and a ‘welcome home’ go when they’ve got to get a job [and] a place to stay?”

Compared to counties statewide, Montgomery County—which houses the Montgomery County Jail—has the seventh-highest number of offenders released from prisons or jails to the area by the state criminal justice department. Offenders are released to the county where they committed the crime.

In 2018, 892 and 307 offenders were released from prisons or state jails, respectively, to Montgomery County, according to state data. Huntsville Unit has a division focused on re-entry and release, and nonprofits in the Conroe and Montgomery area provide re-entry and related services. Still, Springer said there need to be more resources and support in the county.

Jeff Williams, founder of Eagle Nest Ministries’ Soaring Eagles re-entry program in Conroe, said without concerted resources and support, offenders tend to commit more crimes, putting public safety at risk and costing taxpayers.

“We don’t have coordinated efforts locally,” Williams said. “The county isn’t prepared at this point to deal with the re-entry piece.”

Effect on the public

Recidivism, or the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend, affects the public from a safety and economic standpoint, said Sarah Chapman, a professor of criminal justice at Lone Star College-Montgomery.

“Recidivism impacts everyone,” she said. “Crime rates affect our property values, feelings of personal safety, insurance rates [and] taxes ... It would be economically responsible to invest in rehabilitation and re-entry in an attempt to reduce incarceration rates and criminal re-offending.”

According to preliminary data pending final review from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, 141 individuals were sentenced to Montgomery County Jail in 2019, as of July. The average cost to county taxpayers to incarcerate this population per day is $8,676, according to the coalition.

Meanwhile, the total annual number of individuals from the county sentenced to state-level confinement as of July 2019 was 2,671—costing state taxpayers about $150,500 per day.

Newly released offenders who lack support or resources are more likely to recidivate, Springer said.

“They’re just going back to where they came from, and because they go back to where they came from, they’re going to get in trouble again,” he said.

In 2018, 105 individuals in Montgomery County returned to state prisons after having parole or supervision revoked, according to the Criminal Justice Coalition. Formerly incarcerated individuals are also almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to the coalition.

Groundwork by nonprofits

There are more than 60 agencies in Montgomery County that provide re-entry services or related services ranging from drug and alcohol addiction to housing and employment searching, Chapman said. However, these agencies tend to lack adequate funding, nonprofit representatives said.

“I’ve got the vision, the connections, but I don’t have any money,” Williams said.

Williams said he believes Eagles Nest Ministries, which relies on donations and grants, is the only organization in the Conroe and Montgomery area that specifically targets re-entry from prisons through an in-home program. The 12-month program houses up to 12 men at a time and has a 0% recidivism rate among graduates, he said.

Justin Vough graduated from the program in 2016 after serving 14 years in prison—five of which were in solitary confinement. Vough said Eagles Nest Ministries helped him turn his life around, and he now works as a manager at The Catch in Conroe.

“The program really truly helped me,” he said.

Williams said he is trying to expand the program by increasing the number of permanent housing units from five to 30. But to truly scale his business model, Williams said he must connect with local apartments and industries.

“If we coordinated that effort, we would reduce recidivism in our county,” Williams said.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Housing Act protects individuals from discriminatory housing practices based on traits such as sex and race. However, a person’s criminal background is not listed. Williams said he has not been able to find apartments in the area that accept felons unless he personally knows the apartment owner.

Conroe resident John Allen said he was arrested for stealing when he was younger. Years later, he applied to be an animal control officer. But because of his Class B misdemeanor, Allen said he is barred for life to serve in a civic position within the county.

“My desire to help the community by being in law enforcement was shot to [hell],” he said.

Other local organizations do not specifically focus on re-entry but rather addiction or prison ministry.

Innerfaith Disciple House in Conroe is designed to help men overcome addiction and substance abuse. The organization does not rely on state funding but on donations, grants and payments from program participants.

Innerfaith serves about 16 men a year and has a graduation rate of 70%, while most rehab and treatment centers have 10%-17% success rates, founder and Director Chris Follet said. The organization is working to open a medical detox facility in late 2020 or early 2021, he said.

New Life Women’s Center, a faith-based rehab center, implemented its New Life Enrichment program at Montgomery County Jail in February in partnership with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. As of October, about 35 women have successfully completed the program, which teaches them to take charge of their lives, program Director Vanessa Ramos said.

Ramos said she believes the program benefits not only the women enrolled but also all of society.

“If they’re not healthy, then we’re still living in a world of crime,” she said. “If we can remove that, then we’re only helping ourselves.”

Looking statewide

Statewide data suggests recidivism rates have remained steady in recent years. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2015—the most recent data available—the percentage of individuals released from prison who were re-arrested within three years of release ranged from 45.4% and 47.3%, according to the Legislative Budget Board. For state prisons, this number ranged from 60.7% to 62.9%.

Countywide and jail-specific data is more difficult to determine. A representative from Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office said the office is unable to provide data related to recidivism or release rates because it does not track that data. The sheriff’s office also did not return requests for an interview.

Jay Jenkins, a Harris County project attorney for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the lack of reliable data and transparency makes it difficult to allocate resources and plan infrastructure to accommodate the influx of individuals released each day.

“Although the community efforts are amazing, the lack of data and decentralization of everything makes it difficult for those communities that are on the ground doing this work to coordinate,” he said.

In addition to collecting more data, Jenkins said the state should make funding for nonprofits more accessible so they do not need to establish grant-writing departments and struggle to obtain funds.

“In an ideal world, there would be state funds that go to these organizations in an efficient way,” he said. “If [organizations had] a little more funding, they could really streamline [their efforts].”
By Eva Vigh
Eva Vigh joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2018 as a reporter for Spring and Klein. Prior to this position, she covered upstream oil and gas news for a drilling contractors' association.


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