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Texas Department of Criminal Justice offers gang members chance for new life

People instinctively call it a program, but what the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has in place to help prison gang members turn their lives around is really a process. There’s a beginning but no real end.
Captain Oscar Torres talking to two offenders at a table in prison hallway
Capt. Oscar Torres talks with GRAD offenders at the TDCJ Ramsey Unit south of Houston.

Photo by David Nunnelee

“This is the beginning of a process in life, and it is something that must be practiced to the last breath,” said Capt. Oscar Torres, who helps guide offenders through the process known as GRAD (Gang Renouncement and Disassociation) at the Ramsey Unit south of Houston. “It’s a process that never ends.”

TDCJ now counts approximately 9,300 confirmed prison gang members out of a population of more than 150,000. They belong to rigidly structured gangs like the Texas Syndicate, Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia that are known to be involved in organized criminal activities. Once confirmed, gang members are isolated from the general prison population and placed in high security administrative segregation cells. The only way out for those assigned to administrative segregation solely because of their gang association is to voluntarily renounce their membership and begin the GRAD process. Since 2002, more than 1,400 TDCJ offenders have completed the nearly yearlong reentry process.

Sigifredo Sanchez, who manages GRAD as chief of TDCJ’s Security Threat Group Office, said joining a prison gang can be an easy out for offenders who find themselves doing hard time without the support of family and friends. And for street thugs, the gang mentality may be all they know.

“Being in a gang is a way of life, it’s a lifestyle,” said Sanchez. “It’s an easier lifestyle for many of them.”

Sanchez also said it often takes time for young impressionable offenders to realize that prison gangs are not what they seem.

“You want to renounce your gang membership because you finally realize that the gang lifestyle hasn’t gotten you anything but the penitentiary and a whole lot of time,” he said. “And we’re seeing a lot more of these guys wanting to get out. For the most part, once they realize that we can make this a shorter route, a lot of them are raising their hands and saying, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’”

Renouncement voluntary

Sanchez said gang members must decide on their own that they want to change their lives.

“I don’t recruit,” he said. “It’s got to be up to the individual. And I tell them that it’s not going to be easy. I tell them that if they want to better their lives that they’re not going to do it in administrative segregation. And I think that’s one reason GRAD has been so successful. We’re getting a person who has already decided that he needs to change his life.”

Gang renouncement isn’t an immediate out, however. Gang members volunteering for GRAD are monitored before any decision is made to admit them. Any gang-related disciplinary case sustained against them during that time disqualifies them from consideration.

GRAD consists of three phases spanning nine months. After two months of in-cell tutoring, participants are moved to less restrictive housing and exposed to a classroom curriculum that includes life skills and cognitive intervention training, GED preparation and classes in anger management.

Established at Ramsey with just eight offenders in 2002, GRAD was expanded to the Ellis Unit near Huntsville in October 2008.

“They’re different,” Capt. Torres said about the renounced gang members who make it through GRAD. “When these people come in, they are very reserved, anti-social. But by the time they are finished with the nine months, they are a lot better people than they were when we received them.”

Pat Peterson, a licensed substance abuse counselor, works daily with the GRAD offenders at Ramsey.

“If you don’t change the way they see themselves, then they’re doomed to repeat their behavior over and over again,” Peterson said. “They come from a world (administrative segregation) where there are no choices. They don’t have to give any thought to anything that’s happening in their world. Then we begin introducing them to the general population and start bombarding them with more options, which means they have to make more choices. So this whole process is about giving them more choices.”

Some don’t make it, though.

“There are people you can’t reach,” Peterson said. “It’s because they have different goals than we have. They want to get into general population and increase their odds of getting out. Well, what are we here for? I’m sitting here saying, ‘How would you like to become a good citizen, my next door neighbor?’”

Upon graduation, GRAD offenders are returned to the general prison population where they might share their real-life gang experiences with young offenders who are often targeted by recruiters. Sanchez said that while GRAD is reaching some members in Texas, prison gangs remain a problem throughout the country.

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