|Leaving Gang Life Behind in Texas|
|By Meghan Mandeville, News Research Reporter|
While gang life may have seemed like a good choice for some Texas offenders when they were on the outside, many inmate-gang members are starting to rethink that decision during their incarceration. With the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) sending all confirmed members of eight Texas gangs - ranging from the Mexican Mafia to the Aryan Circle - directly into administration segregation, those inmates have nearly 23 hours a day to sit alone in their cells and reevaluate their decision to belong to a gang.
To help inmates who want to break away from that way of life, TDCJ created the Gang Renouncement and Disassociation (GRAD) program to give them a way out.
"It gives the offenders an avenue to renounce their gang membership, to get out of the gang and to be able to go back to the general population," said Kenneth W. Lee, Program Administrator for TDCJ's STG Management Office. "Then, [they can] be released into the free world and thrive in society."
The GRAD program began four years ago at the Ramsey I Unit in Rosharon, Texas and targets offenders who belong to one of the eight security threat groups (STG) that TDCJ has identified for automatic placement into administrative segregation. All in all, about 6,000 inmates in the system belong to one of those gangs, which include the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, Mexican Mafia, Barrio Azteca, Aryan Circle, Texas Mafia, Raza Unida, Texas Syndicate and Hermanos Pistoleros Latinos.
After conducting research on the best way to channel confirmed gang members out of administrative segregation and back into the general population, TDCJ came up with a nine-month program designed to transition former gang members back into the rest of the inmate population.
"The only way they can get out is to renounce their membership," Lee said. "If they meet all of the criteria for the program, they are put on a list."
Getting into GRAD
In order to be considered for the program, inmates must first submit a written statement to their STG officer stating their desire to renounce their membership to a particular gang. Afterwards, officers conduct a complete investigation of that inmate on their unit, to ensure that they truly intend to break their gang ties.
Beyond the written letter and the investigation, inmates must meet a variety of other requirements before they are accepted into the program:
In addition, offenders have to fill out a form, which is reviewed by a committee on the unit level and a then a regional coordinator, before it finds its way to Lee.
If an inmate is approved for the GRAD program, he is put on a waiting list, which now has 740 people on it, Lee said. And there are another 1,000 inmates who have submitted, in writing, their intent to renounce their gang memberships and are currently being monitored in their administrative segregation units.
"They're really wanting to get into the program," Lee said.
Every month, 16 new offenders are entered into the program and transferred to Ramsey I, where they live apart from the general population for the first two phases of the three-phase program.
Easing Back into the General Population
According to Lee, during phase one, the inmates live in single cells. He said it is an adjustment for a lot of the inmates to come out of administrative segregation - where they were handcuffed and shackled at all times when they were out of their cells - to an environment like Ramsey.
"There's a lot of rules they go by [at Ramsey], but it's completely different than administrative segregation," Lee said. "It takes a while [for the inmates] to adjust because some of the offenders have been in administrative segregation for as long as 18 years."
After the inmates become accustomed to living at Ramsey and spend two months in phase one, they enter phase two, during which inmates from different STGs live together in double cells for four months. According to Lee, the fact that former rival gang members are sharing a living space has never created any security issues.
"It has worked well," Lee said. "Of course we have had some disciplinary problems, but it has not been gang related - not at all."
Throughout phases one and two, the inmates attend four hours of educational programming each day, including anger management, cognitive intervention and substance abuse classes.
Once the inmates advance to phase three, they are mixed in with the other inmates at Ramsey, but still monitored by GRAD program officers. At this point, they take classes and work with the general population at the facility.
"They are separate from the rest of the general population while they are in phase one and phase two and, then, in phase three, they are put back into the rest of the general population [and] can continue [their] educational programming and [they are] given jobs to do to learn skills for when they do get out," Lee said.
After phase three, which lasts for three months, the inmates graduate from the GRAD program, their classifications are changed to reflect that they are now ex-gang members and they are transferred to other facilities, where they are integrated into the general population.
"There are a lot of different programs that are available to them once they have completed the GRAD process," Lee said. "Then they are treated like any other offender."
A Win-Win Situation
Although the STG officers in the units the offenders transition to are aware of their ex-gang member statuses and keep a closer eye on them in the general population, Lee said, so far, he has had no problems with offenders acting up or rejoining gangs after they have completed the GRAD program.
"Knock on wood, I've graduated 329 [offenders and] zero have gone back to a gang," Lee said.
Because of the program's success, Lee would like to see it expanded, a proposal that is currently being considered by officials at TDCJ.
"[We are] proposing to double it, so we'd be putting in 32 [offenders] a month and expanding [it] to 384 a year," Lee said.
It's a solid program, he added, because it benefits not only the offenders who are leaving gang life behind, but also the agency as a whole.
"It helps the security of the officers as far as lowering the number of confirmed gang members they have to watch," Lee said. "It's [also] cost-effective because it's freeing up administrative segregation cells and hopefully it will prevent these offenders from coming back into the system."
Lee (936) 437-8924 or Kenneth.firstname.lastname@example.org