IFI – Prison Reform that Works
68% of prisoners in the US return to jail within three years…. 48% of prisoners in Texas return to prison in three years.
Only 10% of prisoners who participate in the IFI prison program return to prison in three years.
How is it possible that inmates who participate in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative have such a low rate of return? Why are the majority of these inmates not repeating crimes and not repeating undesirable behavior compared to other prisoners?
The IFI program is located in Richardson, Texas (45 minutes from downtown Houston), just down the road from the Carol Vance Texas prison. The program began in 2000 and although the unit itself is funded by the State, the program is a non-profit mostly relying on help from volunteers.
For an inmate to be allowed to enter the program, they must have 2 years or less on their prison sentence and must not be a sex offender. So about my visit to seeing the IFI first-hand, I was not allowed to take photos inside the unit, and although I cannot imagine this unit looking much different than other prison units, one thing that really stood out was the gardens within the unit that are planted and maintained by the inmates. Some of the gardens I saw would have given your ‘garden of the month’ homeowner a run for his money. Despite the high fences and barb wire, it was refreshing to see plants and flowers blooming within the unit.
Texas IFI Director Tommie Dorsett, led the tour. He has been involved with the IFI since the beginning of when the program was launched eleven years ago. When launched, 25 men entered the program. Now, every year there are about 300 men in the program.
1st stop – the computer lab. Did you know that the average inmate is in jail for 10 years? Many of the inmates are not familiar with using computers, creating resumes, and drafting business plans. Yes, you read that right – Business Plans.
70% of corporations do not hire felons which impede many released prisoners from finding work. With that said, IFI places a big emphasis on teaching the inmates to think about potential businesses they can create and putting these plans onto paper. Furthermore, several experienced business professionals in the community volunteer their time and provide coaching and instruction on how to create a business plan. To date, 33 participants have started their own businesses such as air condition repair, landscaping, plumbing, painting services, and car mechanic service. Just my first stop on the tour and I was already impressed.
Next stop, recording studio. As soon as I walked in I saw two inmates behind a desk that featured an Apple computer and sound equipment. Yes I was a bit jealous since I don’t even own an Apple laptop. Along the walls of the recording studio were dozens of kids’ books – some in Spanish as well as English. This was not your traditional recording studio. In this room, inmates who are fathers actually read children books and record their voice. The recordings are then mixed with background sound effects and recorded onto a CD that is then mailed to their families. Once the mom or family member pops in the CD, the kids, as you can imagine, are so excited to hear daddy’s voice and are thrilled to listen to the CDs over and over. Two times a year recordings are made – at Christmas and for birthdays. Such a wonderful idea that helps connects the fathers with their kids.
3rd stop – hear a Toastmasters speech. I was totally surprised when I found out that there is a Toastmasters group at IFI! If you are not aware of Toastmasters, it is a club that helps members improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills. The club meets on a regular basis so that members can practice speaking in front of audiences, listening, and providing each other with feedback and evaluation.
Great, we on the tour were thrilled to be able to hear a speech from one of the inmates. The Toastmaster (who did a great job welcoming everyone and stating the course of the meeting) introduced one of the inmates – Derrill who gave a speech entitled “How your Weakness can become your Greatest Strength”. I have heard a good number of speeches. In fact, I was also in a Toastmaster group years ago and heard several people give talks. Derrill…. Derrill was awesome. He gave a speech so well that he had my complete attention and interest. Full of life, animation, and conviction, Derrill told one of the greatest stories I have ever heard. What a brilliant idea to teach leadership and speaking skills – implement a Toastmasters group in prison.
There are several other programs at the IFI such as Financial Management, courses on work ethic, anger management, Embracing the Father, and Purpose Driven Life. Unfortunately our tour did not permit enough time to visit all the different classes.
As to why do I think the InnerChange Freedom Initiative is so successful, although the wealth of classes and learning opportunities available for the inmates help, I believe the success is attributed to the volunteers and mentors who dedicate their time to helping prepare these inmates for reentry to society, employment, religious and community service, and family and social relationships. It is because of the volunteers that the program is largely successful.
Roy Garcia, who has been volunteering for 2 ½ years, said it best, “I continue to be amazed at the wonderful transformation that occurs in the men that go through the IFI program. When these men come to my office (the Aftercare Office, where I work, where the men visit after they are released from the Carol Vance Unit) and visit me I am amazed at the profound change that has occurred. The man sitting in front of me is not the man of whom I read about in his file. The man who in his early 20’s was a drug user and seller is now a productive member of society. It’s such a privilege and joy for me to be part of this wonderful ministry.”
To learn more and see how you can help, please visit www.ifiprison.org.