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UHD Students Assisting Former Inmates with Reentry into Workforce, Society

Criminal Justice students in Judith Harris' Senior Semiar

Criminal Justice students in Judith Harris’ Senior Semiar

Each year, thousands of prison inmates are released into a world that may seem unfamiliar. Former prisoners must adapt to new rules, new codes of conduct and a new way of life. They’re often strangers in a strange land. Thanks to the support of University of Houston-Downtown criminal justice students, recently released inmates will receive support and guidance as they reenter the free world.

Led by Judith Harris, UHD assistant professor of criminal justice, 27 students will work directly with formerly incarcerated populations as they transition into the workforce and society.

Their efforts are part of a senior seminar taught by Harris and supported by a grant from the Sylvester Turner Foundation – awarded by UHD’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL). Funds from this $2,400 grant will be applied to state-certified peer recovery coach training for 12 of Harris’ students. The project also is made possible through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the University and Service Employment Redevelopment (SER) Jobs for Progress of the Texas Gulf Coast.

As peer recovery coaches, students will work with former prisoners as counselors and assist in placing them in transitional programs or communities.

“They’re also there to simply listen,” said Harris. “It’s not like a 12 Step Program. It’s about talking, listening and being non-judgmental, and to help integrate these people into communities as functional citizens.”

While all of Harris’ students will be working with former inmates, those certified as peer recovery coaches will be assigned specific cases and clients. Student peer recovery coaches will work with former inmates in group settings and one-on-one. The experience gained from this seminar, Harris said, is crucial to their professional and personal development.

Harris has completed the educational portion of peer recovery coach training and will also begin working with clients.

“When these students take on cases, they will be going in at the same level as me,” she said. “They will have a variety of responsibilities as they begin working with their clients.”

Peer recovery coach training for students begins this month and lasts for two weeks. Sessions are conducted by Amelia Murphy, director of Recovery Support Services for Santa Maria Hostel in Houston. After completing their sessions with Murphy, students must complete 500 supervised internship hours to earn state certifications as peer recovery coaches.

“The recovery coach training and experience gained from the program will provide me with much needed insight into other aspects of the criminal justice world,” said student Charles Smith. “Considering I plan on becoming a law enforcement officer, this training will allow me to experience much of what happens to an individual while reintegrating back into society.”

Students, who are not participating in the training, also will work with former inmates as mentors, tutors and life skills teachers. Their tasks may range from teaching basic math skills to showing clients how to operate cell phones, Harris noted.

Karina Cruz is one of the students who is not undergoing training but will work directly with former inmates. She said the project will provide invaluable experience and help her understand the challenges of those returning to society after incarceration.

“I will learn their frustrations, successes and setbacks,” she said. “I know this will not be easy but I will do my best to help them and make this an even greater learning experience for myself.”

This semester, Harris’ Senior Seminar students will work with clients at these local organizations:

  • Work Faith Connections – faith-based organization aimed at workforce preparation and training
  • Cheyanne Center – transitional, residential community providing chemical dependence treatment
  • Angela House – community aimed at transitioning women into society after incarceration
  • Leidel Comprehensive Sanction Center – residential reentry center providing transitional services for those serving the last six months of their sentences

Preliminary work on this project began in fall 2016 with research and coordination with the participating organizations. Its genesis began with the MOU between the University and SER to develop a program aimed at providing both service learning opportunities for students and a program that delivers workforce pathways for previously incarcerated community members. In 2016, SER Jobs for Progress for the Texas Gulf Coast received a $1.3 million U.S. Department of Labor Training to Work Grant 3 – Adult Reentry Grant that supports this project and others in the region.

A video with additional details on the project can be viewed here.