BROWNWOOD – Texas juvenile justice officials think they might have found a solution to some of their incarcerated youths' behavior problems: putting them to work.
The Texas Juvenile Justice Department has developed a pilot program to place young offenders in jobs if they have already earned a high school diploma or GED. Normally, youths have to keep up a 16-hour day that includes going to classes even if they have completed their required education.
But under the two-tier program Capstone Program, being tested throughout the system, some youths who excel in their rehabilitation can take jobs away from their facilities, while others still dealing with behavioral issues are given jobs at their facilities.
The program was developed through the agency's involvement in the Youth In Custody Certificate Program with the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.
The juvenile justice agency currently serves 1,713 youth, with 1,075 in five secure facilities, and the rest 140 halfway houses, contract care facilities or on parole.
So far seven youths have entered the jobs program: five with on-campus jobs at the Gainesville State School — such as working in the cafeteria, waxing and stripping floors and maintaining grounds — and two allowed to work off campus.
Miriam, 18, who recently left the juvenile justice system, found rehabilitation during her work at a local pet grooming business. "Bad choices," she said, landed her in the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex, two-and-a-half years ago.
Youths who agree to interviews are discouraged from using their last names or discussing topics that might identify them, according to the juvenile justice agency. Miriam declined to give her last name or discuss what she did that landed her in the system. She said, though, she got mixed up with the wrong people and wasn't concerned that her actions affected others.
Ron Jackson has been a female facility for years, but also serves as the intake site for all youth when they first enter the juvenile justice system. Every youth ultimately placed in Ron Jackson has been adjudicated for a felony offense, according to the agency.
"I thought I would go in there, do time and get out," recalled Miriam, who said she refrained from interacting with others or showing emotions because she perceived it as weakness.
Then she participated in the Pairing Achievement With Service program, which pairs youths with shelter dogs which they care for until they become adoptable. Miriam said that experience helped her become empathetic and more responsible.
"You know they're getting a second chance," she said. "They're not just gonna get put down."
With her canine friends: "I didn't have to have my guard up with them."
That experience and good behavior helped her land a job while in the system at Ag-Mart, a pet food and grooming business in Brownwood, which has had a working relationship with the Ron Jackson complex. Miriam assisted with the close to 10 dogs a day dropped off by owners.
"I didn't realize that they know what they're doing. And I just thought back to all the things dogs have done," she said with a laughed. "People care for their dogs like they're their own children. I see it almost every day."
Youths in the program earn various incentives, including monetary ones, according to the juvenile justice department. The agency maintains their bank accounts while they are in the system and gives them the money when they leave.
The program helps youths gain practical work experience, increasing the chance's they'll become positive and contributing members of the communities they return to. That process also helps youth with their treatment, which typically emphasizes recognizing the errors and victimization that landed them in the system.
Miriam did well, said Holli Fenton, a dorm supervisor at the Ron Jackson facility, who oversees the PAWS program.
“For us to be part of that is wonderful because it’s a win-win,” she said. “You get to work with kids. You get to work with dogs. I like to get up. I like to come to work.”
The change in environment helped Miriam improve her social skills, groomer Christine Healer said.
"She's like 'why's everybody saying hi? I don't want to be everybody's friend,'" Healer recalled. "Now, she greets customers and says bye when they leave."
Healer said she was worried at first about working with someone in the juvenile justice system, but resolved to be a model mentor.
"She catches on very fast. She's very sweet," Healer said. "People wouldn't know she's in the system."
Healer said she learned from Miriam.
"She's made me see things like the different way people are," she said. "Not everybody knows how to interact with people. People can change. People are impacted by their environment."
Before she was discharged and returned to the Houston area, Miriam said she wanted to stick with working with animals. Healer said she hopes Miriam will be herself and let others learn from her.
“Don’t be bullied back into the environment that you were in,” Healer said. “She can do it.”
The department plans to expand the program, spokesman Jim Hurley said. It will end the pilot program this spring and begin the program, primarily the on-campus part, at three other facilities during the summer, he said.
Presently, female youth are being prepared for the on-campus component at the Ron Jackson facility. Employees there have said Miriam set an example for other youth in the system. And seeing Miriam succeed is a unique opportunity for staffers, said April Jameson, superintendent of the Ron Jackson complex.
“It just reinforces to the staff what they do is so important,” she said. “So staff are proud even if they don’t know her.”