Texas program aims to help ex-inmates re-enter society

FORT WORTH -- Jerry Cabluck created a photo exhibit in the foyer at the Cornerstone Assistance Network building just east of downtown.

In one picture, a man with a shaved head and dark-rimmed glasses walks hand in hand with his wife. His young son and two daughters, also holding hands, walk beside him.

In another, a man wearing a dark suit and an earring smiles at his wife on their wedding day.

The men in the photographs are ex-convicts who were released from prison, came home and got their lives on track. When Cabluck, who has mentored people leaving prison for years, speaks of these success stories, he grows emotional.

They are stories that Cabluck hopes will multiply because of a new statewide effort to help ex-convicts adjust to mainstream society without reoffending. About 300 people with connections to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, faith organizations, businesses and nonprofits met in San Antonio to launch Out4Life.

"Seeing a man change his life ... that's what it is about," said Cabluck, who attended the conference.

Under the Out4Life plan, coalitions will be formed in communities and will be designed to help ex-offenders overcome the most common barriers to re-entry: the inability to find stable jobs and housing, and turning to substance abuse.

"Right now, you have a lot of groups that are working independently to help men and women leaving prison adjust," said Tommie Dorsett, the executive director of Prison Fellowship Texas. "If you can bring all these groups together, you can have a much more powerful impact."

Bringing more faith-based organizations on board is considered a critical part of the plan. In prison, many inmates grow spiritually through various ministries, mentoring and other programs. But once they are free, the spiritual connections tend to fray.

"The hard part is when they get out," said Dee Wilson, director of the re-entry division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "We'd like whatever spiritual assistance they receive in prison to be available in the communities they are returning to after their release."

Faith-based assistance only goes so far. Ex-offenders need a paycheck and a place to live, neither of which is easy for someone with a criminal record to find. That's why businesses and social service agencies are urged to participate.

Cabluck has experience pulling resources together. Seven years ago, he founded Welcome Back/Tarrant County, a ministry he runs out of the Cornerstone offices that helps parolees adjust to re-entry. A handful of ministries and social service providers participate.

Among other things, the program helps the men and women get vital records, like birth certificates; pursue high school equivalency diplomas; and even get eyeglasses. Cabluck hopes to expand that network through Out4Life.

"The ideal thing is when we get strong enough in Fort Worth, what will happen is we get some mentors" with the offenders, Cabluck said. "I think this new effort is wonderful."

Texas has taken an increased interest in re-entry service. Last year, the Legislature instructed the criminal justice department to form a task force to focus on barriers faced by recently released inmates.

About two-thirds of ex-offenders are arrested within three years for a new crime, according to some statistics.

An estimated 6,000 ex-convicts are released from state and federal prisons into Tarrant County each year.

"You have people who get out with nothing -- no clothes, no direction and nowhere to go," Dorsett said. "We need to give them a chance."

ALEX BRANCH, 817-390-7689