New program in Texas prison gives female inmates opportunities

Texas Lockhart Correctional Facility graduates feeling emotional as they attend their 2019 graduation ceremony and listen to their peers offer celebratory commencement speeches.

Sometimes the best quotes have a special power to inspire us to change our mindset, see things from a fresh perspective, and perhaps propel us into action; especially for women in prison.

"I dwell in possibility," said the poet Emily Dickinson. She also stated, “Hope springs eternal.”

At Lockhart Correctional Facility in Lockhart, Texas—a minimum-security prison located in Caldwell County, 32 miles from downtown Austin and better known for its barbecue than its jail—on every wall, along every corridor in the facility, female inmates have painted their favorite inspiring quotes with murals, including quotes by Dickinson.

Lockhart Correctional Facility believes in second chances for its inmates and prepping these females for future work success. It provides many work opportunities, educational and vocational programs to its offenders and is managed by Management & Training Corporation (MTC) who believe in rehabilitation through educational opportunities. Their motto is BIONIC (an acronym for Believe it or not I care).

One of the new pilot programs teaches female inmates trade skills in manufacturing to set them up for employment in industry upon their release into society.

“I was brought in in shackles and released in shackles. Today, for my graduation ceremony, I walked in the front door like everyone else—a free woman, only this time I have a college certificate and an industry certification,” said Casey Brem, 35 of Midland, wiping tears from her face.

Brem is one of 14 students who graduated on August 24, 2019 from the Certified Production Technician program.  She was released early in July, but continued her studies for the program at home and then voluntarily returned to the facility via a 5-hour drive from Midland with her mother to graduate alongside her 13 fellow students.

While completing the course work through ACC, the 14 students also took their national manufacturing certification assessments with a nearly 100% success rate and walked across the stage to receive their diploma from their Engineering Program Instructor, Rosalba Schramm, and Don Tracy, the administrator of ACC correctional educational program.

“This program would not have been made possible without the partnership between Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) and Workforce Solutions Rural Capital (WSRCA), the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and Lockhart Correctional Facility who went above and beyond,” said Tracy, from the podium where he called out each of the inmates by their first name and acknowledged the journey they had taken together.

“It takes partnerships. Meanwhile, these women have worked so tremendously hard,” Tracy continued. “They’ve earned this.”

The training is funded through a Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) program and utilized existing manufacturing equipment available within the industry program at the facility.

What will happen after graduation? As each participant has a different release date from incarceration after they graduate from the program, they will work closely with TWC Workforce Solutions Rural Capital case managers to review career options with local employers in Hays and Caldwell counties (and other WFS offices across the state) to leverage their certifications.

"It was an honor to help celebrate with these graduates and their families as they accomplished this milestone in their personal and professional lives," said Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area CEO Paul Fletcher. "This manufacturing certification program came as a result of listening to the workforce needs of our industry partners, and then tapping into our strong community partnerships to deliver training solutions."

“Today tells us what can be done when thinking outside the box happens with people with big ideas and big hearts,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez, who was the main commencement speaker at the graduation. He received no less than eight standing ovations from the inmates and their families.

“With a 3.4% unemployment rate in Texas, this is precisely the way we become innovative in our thinking and solve a shortage for skilled workers. Everyone deserves a second chance and these hardworking and inspiring women today only reinforce that message in magnitude,” Alvarez continued.

This is the first time ACC and WSRCA has partnered with the staff at the prison to offer a program like this. Nevertheless, it seems likely to be repeated with funding for the second cohort already approved.

Warden Jennifer Brown believes in the program and in its ability to change lives for her inmates.

“We all make mistakes and these are someone’s mother or future mother—someone’s sister or daughter,” said Warden Brown – a female with 27 years in the prison industry who stood up to clap for each of her graduating inmates—and who got her own standing ovation.

“These women deserve every opportunity to become all they can be, improve their circumstances and have a second chance at improving their lives,” Brown continued. “I’m so grateful to The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and others who without their support none of this would be possible,” Brown added.   

If adequate employment, training and certification is a prerequisite for successful re-entry into society for all inmates, then this program has already succeeded.

The inmates believe in the importance of the pilot program although some expressed surprise that females were included in the first ever pilot.  

“I couldn’t believe they would offer this opportunity first to women. They rarely if ever offer things first to women,” said Alison Albanese, 36, of Corpus Christi, during her commencement speech, fighting back tears and drawing tears from all of her cohorts. “We are just so grateful. You don’t know how grateful we are,” Albanese continued.

When asked what she would tell an employer who might be hesitant to hire an ex-offender, fighting back tears, as she held onto her own daughter who came to see her mom walk the stage, Misty Campbell, 46, of Amarillo, stopped thoughtfully, looked at her daughter, and then wiped tears from her eyes.

“They should know that we have to work three times as hard as a non-offender and we know that. We have to work harder to establish that trust more than anyone else does.  We are just happy for the opportunity to be treated like human beings and we will do whatever it takes,” Campbell stated.

“I’m not the same person who walked in here 4 years ago. This certification has built up my confidence. It has given me hope,” Campbell continued. “I’m ready for another chance.  I am stronger this time. I’ll do better.”

Sometimes hope does spring eternal.

By Margaret Hession