HOUSTON (CN) — Every year 16,000 to 18,000 felons return to the Houston area after being released from Texas prisons. Whether they can avoid returning to prison largely depends on one thing: if they can find a job.
The statistic does not include the number who return to Greater Houston from federal prison each year, are released from the Harris County Jail in downtown Houston or who move to the area after being incarcerated in other states, according to Willis Robinson.
Robinson, 56, is manager of the City of Houston Community Re-entry Network Program, which since it started in 2008 has graduated more than 500 felons from its 12-week program, which offers clients counseling services with case managers, life-skills classes, computer-and-job interview training, help with resumes and job referrals.
Robinson said the program has developed a job pipeline to the city's Public Works Department.
"They will not hire an ex-offender unless an ex-offender comes through our program. So we have a great working relationship with public works because they believe in what we're doing, and it works," Robinson said.
"They all start off as temporary employees and we've got about 16 to 18 more who have now become full-time employees for the Public Works Department."
Robinson said the re-entry program has only a few criteria for admission: "Do not be a sex offender or an arsonist. Be 18 years old or older and have had some dealings with the criminal justice system, whether you've spent one day in jail or more than 20 years."
Faye Robinson, 59, is a case manager supervisor for the program. She said she would like to add a housing component because many apartment managers don't rent to felons, and those who do often charge double the normal security deposit.
Katie Shelton, 40, could use some housing assistance. She moved to Houston in July "to start her life over" after she was released from a federal prison in Minnesota.
"I went to federal prison for a legal gun and bullets — my nephew's gun. It was in my home and he lived with me. They came in looking for him and they arrested me for the gun," Shelton said.
It's a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison for felons to knowingly possess guns.
A tall, bleached blonde with an easy laugh, Shelton said she's familiar with blue-collar work because she grew up working with her family's tow truck, sanitation and home-moving business in Oklahoma.
She shoveled snow and did landscaping at the low-security federal prison in Waseca, Minn. for 12 cents an hour and worked with a prison crew in Arizona, where she served time for drug crimes and felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In Arizona she cut down trees, dug manholes and moved boulders outside the prison in Perryville, making 25 cents an hour.
"I know how to shingle roofs, I know how to lay rebar down, I know how to lay cement," she said with a laugh. "I mean, I'm good at it."
Despite her work experience, by late September had applied for 13 jobs in Houston with no takers.
"I've put in my application at Wal-Mart, grocery stores. Kroger denied me, a restaurant, waitressing, even stocking and packaging. I haven't had any luck," she said.