Would you believe me if I told you after spending a beautiful, sunny Saturday working inside I ended the day rejuvenated, inspired, and ready to get to work?
What if I told you I spent the day listening and talking to men who had been convicted of some of the most serious offenses you can imagine including murder and capital murder? And it was those men who had left me inspired?
On Saturday, I had the honor and privilege of joining currently incarcerated youth at the Giddings State School for a panel presentation by previously incarcerated youth. The panel was organized by the former offenders — now all grown men — because they wanted to give back. They wanted to share with the youth their experiences and how the tools they received from the Texas Youth Commission (now part of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department) had helped them change their lives for the better.
All nine of the men had previously spent time in and out of the Texas juvenile justice system. All had been locked up in a Texas Youth Commission, and all but two of those were transferred to prison to continue their sentences in the adult system.
All were given a time to share their stories and advice to the young men currently incarcerated in Giddings. The stories they shared resonated with the current youth because they have similar backgrounds and their offenses were very similar as well. The men shared with the youth that many of them, like many of the current youth, grew up thinking that prison wasn’t a big deal and that ‘hard time’ is a kind of rite of passage. But, they explained, they’ve learned firsthand this is not true, prison was not a place where they wanted to be, and it is not a place to live and grow up.
Like many of the young men they were speaking to, they got involved in gangs at a very early age because gang life was what they knew. They were raised by drug-addicted parents. They watched as their mother’s prostituted themselves. They had family members killed in drug deals gone bad and experienced other childhood trauma most of us can’t even imagine. The panel of speakers explained that their lives were on a bad trajectory that began to change when they entered the juvenile justice system.
Those who went through the Capital Offenders program at Giddings (which Texas Monthly examined in this in-depth article) credit the program and staff with providing the tools they needed to turn their lives around.
After the panel presentations, I was given the opportunity to join the men on a tour of the facility. It’s a facility I’ve visited before, but how could I turn down the chance to experience the men’s return to the facility they grew up in?
As we walked around the campus, some walked quietly, others recounted stories of their childhood. "Remember when we played basketball over here?” Or, "I remember getting in trouble while sitting at this exact table.”
They shared stories about the Capital Offenders intensive group sessions where they learned to process and express their feelings and emotions. They shared how they were in therapy groups with rivals -- guys they wanted to fight -- but as soon as they got to the group room the rivalry stopped because it was a place of respect. In that group they relived some of their deepest secrets about the abuse they had experienced growing up, reenacted their offenses, and saw each other cry.
When we stepped into the group treatment rooms, I asked what it felt like to be in the room where they had previously shared so much raw emotion. One man’s response said it all. He put both his hands on the wall, leaned in, and said, "This is where I learned to express my feelings. Where I learned to be a man.”
Earlier, as we were walking between buildings, I was speaking to this same man’s wife. We were talking about how the Capital Offenders program at Giddings is respected across the country because of its success. We talked about how we wished intensive, specialized programming would be available for more youth. She told me that she credits the Capital Offenders program for helping her husband be a good father and husband.
The entire day is an experience anyone making decisions relating to the Texas juvenile justice system should have. With it came a very inspirational message: If you give the juvenile justice system a chance, it can rehabilitate the youth that society has labeled "the worst of the worst.” But more importantly, they aren’t "the worst of the worst.” They are kids who had very rough childhoods and are in dire need of support to turn their lives around and become hardworking men, loving fathers, and good husbands.