Waco: Clearing a path for inmates who want to re-enter society

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) McLennan County officials are hoping to clear the path for inmates who want to re-enter society successfully.

Christopher Poulos is the executive director of Life With Purpose Treatment at the University of North Texas. (Photo by Rissa Shaw)

The newly formed McLennan County Reintegration hosted a Reintegration Summit Tuesday to bring stakeholders together to discuss solutions to recidivism; when convicted criminals leave jail, reoffend, then end up back behind bars.

“We have so many agencies that all work in silos, and so what we’re hoping to do is bring them all together to really, truly be able to identify what it looks like to offer recovery oriented systems of care for those that are seeking reintegration services,” said Jamie Schmitt, program manager for McLennan County Reintegration.

Schmitt said the goal is to help inmates recover, to help them heal from past traumas so they can reintegrate into society as the people as better people.

“What we're offering them is an opportunity to obtain counseling, support services and employment whenever they're released back into the community, and are able to truly be who they’re meant to be,” said Schmitt.

Christopher Poulos, one of the best-known reintegration success stories, was the summit’s keynote speaker.

The convicted felon and former drug-dealer, ended up graduating from college, going to law school, and interning at the White House during the Obama administration.

He’s one of the first felons ever to have worked at the White House, and the first-ever to have worked and been a prisoner under the same administration.

"I didn't ‘come to’ at the White House, I didn't get released from prison, there were years and years and years of footwork,” said Poulos, who’s the executive director of Life With Purpose Treatment at the University of North Texas.

Poulos was a homeless teenager, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and started selling cocaine to support his habits.

However, right before his arrest, he says he found a 12-step program.

"Without access to that treatment program, I guarantee I would have continued doing the same behavior, and I would have done that same behavior while I was in jail as well,” he said.

After spending two-and-a-half years in prison in Galesburg, Pa., Poulos continued his recovery, pursued his education, and started his career.

As part of his work at UNT, he travels around the country advocating for changes to the justice system.

"It makes a lot more sense to find ways to help people A, avoid prison, but B, if they end up in prison, what are the most successful techniques to help people emerge from that successfully,” said Poulos.

Those techniques or services, however, aren’t free.

"It is expensive to provide treatment for people that are justice-system involved or people that are at risk of being justice-system involved, but it’s more expensive not to, both for the individual, for their families, and for society as a whole,” he said.

The jail is McLennan County’s biggest expense.

It costs tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate, house and feed the 1,000 or so inmates, jail officials say.

So the idea is to provide services to inmates while they’re in jail and once they’re released so they don’t return to jail, because it costs money every time they do.

“The last thing we want is to let these people get out of jail out or out of prison, and then they go right back to a life of crime, they prey on our citizens,” Sheriff Parnell McNamara said.

“If we can keep them out of jail, we’re saving that much tax payer funds.”

The county, along with the City of Waco and Heart of Texas MHMR, has put in about $35,000 each to start-up the reintegration program at the jail, an investment they believe will pay off long term in more ways than one.

“We’re able to go into the jail, meet with them while they’re still struggling with being incarcerated, and the justice-involved individuals are choosing to be a part of our program, so they’re really wanting to make the change,” said Schmitt.

Although it’s brand new, a large majority of the inmates, 15 of the 17 who started with the jail’s reintegration program, have continued with it since being released from jail.

Poulos said there’s no absolute cure to recidivism, but education is the antidote.

"It's not about coddling people who have broken the law, it's simply about creating policies that are smart justice,” he said.