LUFKIN — Maurice Watts pulled into a compact red-brick building on a recent Thursday morning, dressed in black sportswear and a Houston Astros baseball cap.
He had spent the previous 12 hours driving an 18-wheeler for Common Disposal, a saltwater haulage company based in San Augustine, Watts’ hometown in rural east Texas. Watts held an envelope in his hand with $238. It was the first of six loan repayments to the Legacy Institute for Financial Education, a Lufkin-based nonprofit that loaned him $1,350.
“I’m trying to do better than what I’ve done before,” Watts said.
In January, Watts was released from prison. He had spent the past four years serving time in a federal penitentiary in Beaumont.
At 43 and without a college degree, Watts’ job prospects were slim when he left. Re-entering the labor market would not be easy.
Through LIFE, Watts received job training, secured a short-term loan to pay for food and gas, and developed the communication skills he needed to land a steady job as a commercial truck driver.
But Watts’ path to re-entry is not one shared by the tens of thousands of other Texans with criminal histories who struggle upon their release from prison. Despite having served their sentence, former inmates often face collateral consequences – obstacles that extend a person’s sentence beyond incarceration. At the top of the list of obstacles are housing and employment. Landlords and employers often exclude people with criminal histories.
“Once you cross that line into becoming a criminal, it’s hard to find a job,” Watts said. “Then you sit down and put yourself down, and you have low self-esteem.”
Advocates for formerly incarcerated people have long called for more compassionate state policies that would simplify reintegration. Among the changes they propose: the automatic removal of criminal records for those who meet the requirements and the removal of licensing restrictions that prevent former prisoners from entering certain professions. But policy change has been hard to come by in Texas.
To fill the vacuum left by state policy, nonprofits like LIFE are stepping in to help formerly incarcerated people. LIFE was founded by Joseph Caesar, a pastor who grew up in Houston and worked as a financial advisor before turning to the nonprofit sector.
Since the start of the reintegration program last year, 26 of the 52 participants have completed a teacher training or vocational training program. None returned to prison.
“When you get out of jail, you’re on your own,” said Kevin Taylor, who helps run LIFE’s rehabilitation program, known as Next Chapter. “You have nothing, but you need everything. And it’s a terrible place to be.
do whatever it takes
Watts was raised by a single mother in San Augustine, one of the poorest counties in the state. Nearly 30% of the population falls below the federal poverty line, and the majority of public school students in the district are at risk of dropping out.
“Pretty much if you don’t leave this town and try to make something of yourself, you’re going to be in trouble,” Watts said.
Watts first entered the criminal justice system on a drug charge. He was released in 2009 and got his commercial driver’s license in hopes of becoming a truck driver. But having to list his criminal record on job applications has barred him from many jobs. The offers he received required him to drive across the country, an impossible task since he had regularly scheduled to attend probation meetings.
With each rejection, Watts moved closer to his old life selling drugs.
“People end up with a scarlet letter after being incarcerated,” said Michele Deitch, director of the Prisons and Prisons Innovation Lab at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “We make it so impossible for people to start over, and of course that just pushes people back into the underground economy and illegal ways of making a living.”
In 2018, Watts was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine and ended up in federal penitentiary in Beaumont.
A year into Watts’ second prison term, he decided to do whatever it took to start over.
“I didn’t want to be part of street life anymore,” Watts said.
One of Watts’ first challenges upon his release was money. Detainees are legally entitled to receive $100 from the state, as well as transportation to their destination. But without a steady stream of income, this negligible sum only extends so far.
Obtaining a short-term loan is difficult for an unemployed person. And Texas has one of the highest average payday loan rates in the nation at 664%, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, in part because the state does not regulate such loans.
Some cities in Texas have passed ordinances to make loans more affordable and less risky. Only one of these towns, Longview, is in East Texas, a few hours from Lufkin.
Watts was lucky – he connected with LIFE through a mutual friend and the group helped him realize his ambition. The organization first made him write a budget and then gave him a short-term loan of $1,350 to help cover his basic needs until he could earn his own money.
Watts’ next challenge was adjusting to life outside prison.
Many people return to a world very different from the one they left. Those who have been imprisoned for a decade or more may not know how to use a smartphone or lack the basic digital literacy skills that most people take for granted. Others are unaccustomed to new social norms.
Monotony, he says, can damage anyone’s well-being.
At Next Chapter, Caesar and Taylor said their job is to understand each individual’s needs. Some clients, for example, have anger management issues. Others are anxious or depressed. Some just need a benchmark and someone to champion their success.
Next Chapter offers soft skills training. The program teaches ex-convicts how to dress professionally and how to navigate workplace norms.
Advocates say the state can do more to help
As Next Chapter fills a need in East Texas, Capitol organizers are working to get the state to remove barriers for formerly incarcerated people.
Maggie Luna, who has been in and out of prison on drug charges for about 20 years, is working with the Texas Center for Justice and Equity to advocate for legislative change. She mostly focuses on a set of “clean slate” bills that would expand access to criminal record sealings.
A bill would automatically erase certain people’s records. Currently, a complex and costly process prevents people from being redacted, an essential step in obtaining employment. Another Luna-backed bill would expand the pool of people eligible for the exemption.
“I served my time and did the work I needed to do to become an acceptable member of society,” Luna said. “But on paper, I look bad.”
Last year, State Representative James White, R-Hillister, introduced a bill that would automatically seal the records of certain defendants who committed crimes. The bill died in the state Senate.
The legislature also considered laws that would remove professional licensing restrictions for people with criminal records. In 2017, the Legislative Assembly established a commission to review the impact of certain criminal laws. He found that compulsory licensing results in 140,000 fewer jobs per year and costs the state economy more than $400 million each year.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the nation’s largest prison system, has had a Rehabilitation Division since 2009. It offers rehabilitation assistance such as reissuing identity documents. From 2020 to 2022, reintegration case managers completed over 38,000 birth certificate applications.
Inmates deemed to be at moderate or high risk of re-offending also benefit from individualized case planning to help them find employment. Over the past 10 years, the unemployment rate for ex-convicts has declined and the recidivism rate has dropped 3.6% to the current rate of 20.3%, according to a ministry spokesperson. This rate is among the lowest in the country.
But critics say that even if these rehabilitation programs have done, they could do much more if they started earlier in a person’s prison sentence.
“People talk about back-to-school as a program, but it’s a process,” said UT-Austin’s Deitch. “And it’s a process that starts the first day someone is incarcerated.”
Instead of treating people in a punitive way, Deitch said, the state should provide prisoners with the resources and programs they need to be ready for release.
Deitch also suggested that those incarcerated should be paid for the work they do. Texas is one of seven states that does not compensate inmates for the majority of their duties, which include maintenance, farming and manufacturing.
Thinking about the future
Watts spends five days a week driving a truck hauling salt water. Sometimes he takes another shift on his day off to earn extra money.
Although the hours are long and the work exhausting, Watts recovers by tracking baseball stats on his breaks and watching movies on his phone.
He also thinks about his future.
He plans to work for the trucking company for a few more years to save money. After that, he hopes to start his own hot trucking business, which involves hauling smaller, more time-sensitive loads. It will be a family business with two of his sons, he says.
“I’m a strong-minded person, so once I have something in my head that I want to do, that’s pretty much what I’m going to do,” Watts said.
He doesn’t yet know exactly how the business will work or how he and his sons will succeed. But Caesar and Taylor are ready to help.
“That’s where we come in,” Caesar said. “He has all the business knowledge and we know how to run a business. That’s where we’ll make sure he’s on the right track.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.