New lives made easier

By Kara Blomquist

Ninety-five percent of state prisoners will re-enter society at some point, according to the National Reentry Resource Center.

The Waco Reintegration Roundtable is working to help ease the transition of those ex-convicts.

The group has a steering committee made up of people with influential positions in the community and is looking for input from the public.

Rosemary Townsend, director of business affairs and community partnerships in Baylor’s Office of Community Engagement and Service, said the roundtable is trying to find out how the community can help ex-convicts become successful members of society.

“What can we do to help those folks integrate into the community more successfully?” she said. “So that they could hopefully find appropriate jobs and be able to support their families and, you know, go on to become normal tax-paying citizens.”

The roundtable has brought together the people with the power to make changes through the steering committee, Townsend said.

Now the committee is asking the public what those changes should be, she said.

The roundtable will hold its second community meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday at the Waco Multi-purpose Center on the Paul Quinn Campus, 1020 Elm St.

The purpose of the upcoming meeting is to engage the community in discussion of some of the important topics related to reintegration of ex-convicts, said Elizabeth Smith, community volunteer.

Smith has been involved in the roundtable discussion since the organization’s beginning.

The ideas to be discussed at the upcoming community meeting include providing counseling prior to convicts’ release, increasing the public’s knowledge of the issue, increasing the employment of ex-offenders, linking ex-offenders to resources and reducing recidivism.

Recidivism includes all convicts who are rearrested, reconvicted or return to prison within three years following their original release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Smith gave a reason for the steering committee’s inclusion of the community in the discussion. The steering committee doesn’t have all of the answers, she said.

“They don’t know everything that’s going on, and they don’t have all of the solutions,” she said. “It has to be a community-wide effort.”

The Reintegration Roundtable held its first community meeting in January.

The first meeting explained what the reintegration of ex-offenders involved and introduced the Reintegration Roundtable, Smith said.

The meeting helped raise awareness of the problem at hand, she said.

“Many of us don’t have a relative who’s incarcerated, and so this really isn’t on our radar screen,” Smith said. “We’re not thinking about it.”

The roundtable includes a steering committee made up of people who are able to make necessary policy changes, Smith said.

Smith was a facilitator for the steering committee.

She stepped down from this role in January.

The committee members are now familiar with each other and don’t need a moderator, she said.

Members of the steering committee include Chief of Police Brent Stroman, Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., representatives involved with probation and parole, employers and two ex-offenders.

The steering committee was formed in January 2012.

The committee agreed that the public should have the opportunity to participate in the discussion of the issues facing ex-convicts upon their return to society, Townsend said.

These issues include difficulty finding a job and a place to live, she said.

“I think that one of their theories is that if the public doesn’t have an opportunity to comment on this, they’re less likely to be supportive,” she said.

Smith said she knows not every prisoner upon release wants to do the right thing.

“If somebody’s determined not to do the right thing, there’s not a lot you can do about it,” she said. “I’m not naïve enough to think that, you know, there’s some magic there, but I am hopeful enough to believe that if somebody wants to make a change, we should be able to support them in trying to make that change.”

Townsend said she thinks of the program as giving ex-convicts an opportunity.

“It’s just people in the community reaching out to them and, you know, kind of giving them a hand or a chance,” she said.