SAN ANTONIO – Think about the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life.
Now, write it down on a piece of paper and tape it to your shirt. How would you be judged?
That’s a scenario Aida Negron, program manager at the Bexar County Reentry Center, would like anyone reading this story to consider
After working 27 years at the Bexar County Jail, Negron transitioned to her job at the Reentry Center, which provides services for anyone who has been incarcerated.
The ultimate goal is to connect former inmates with a job and the skills or services they need to be self-sustaining to avoid returning to incarceration -- a second chance.
Odd as it may sound, it’s somewhat of a family business.
“When I was a little girl, my dad used to be a volunteer at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, and he was a chaplain,” Negron said. “He would come home at night and tell us about how, you know, God had touched this person’s life, and now he was going to be getting out.”
It was a lesson that stuck with Negron.
“Everybody has a purpose of why they’re here on this Earth,” she said. “I believe God put that in my heart to help this population because I don’t feel like it’s a job. I feel like it’s a calling.”
The Reentry Center helps connect former inmates with a list of employers willing to hire someone who has been incarcerated. That list has grown to over 70 employers today.
“In my history of working in the criminal justice arena, I’ve never seen this many employers interested in this population,” Negron said.
The current labor shortage has a lot to do with that. Manufacturing in the U.S. is on track to have 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030.
The administration has seen it firsthand at Toyotetsu, a manufacturer of Toyota parts on the far South Side.
“According to the Manufacturing Institute, one in four Americans have a background issue. And in this tight labor market, I don’t know why any employer would want to exclude that large percentage of the population that could potentially come and work for you,” said Leslie Cantu, assistant vice president of administration at Toyotetsu.
“They’re harder working and more dedicated,” Cantu said of employees who’ve formerly been in jail. “They’ve applied at other employers and have been turned down.”
Don Christin has been an example of that dedication. He works on the production floor at Toyotetsu.
At 48 years old, it’s the first job he’s ever had. He got the job after serving 23 years in prison in his home state of Louisiana.
“I ain’t never killed nobody or robbed nobody,” Christin said. “I sold drugs, and it cost me my life.”
Christin grew up on the West Bank of New Orleans. His mother moved to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina, and he followed once he was released from prison.
“It was like I was meant to be here because I fell in,” he said. “And I, you know, I’ve been excelling.”
Christin was hired through the Toyotetsu Second Chance Hiring program, an opportunity to recruit employees who’ve been incarcerated.
“If a person looks at me, you know, from the surface and you see the tattoos and the earrings, well, I ain’t got to sell drugs to buy these earrings,” he said. “I got a car. I’m paying for a house. I got stocks and a 401K.”
Christin had never considered having those things before, much less set a goal to achieve. But now, he plans for the future and hopes to help his mom buy a house one day.
His “second chance” success is as much for his mom as it is for him, Christin told KSAT.
“She never doubted me. She never made me feel like, you know, she disowned me,” Christin said about his mother. “She always looked at me like, ‘You can do this.’”
That’s a message the Reentry Center hopes to pass on to its clients.
“Ninety-nine percent of the individuals that are convicted of something return to the community,” said Mike Lozito, director of the Bexar County Office of Criminal Justice. “What shape do you want those individuals to return to? Do you want them more angry, more bitter, more schooled in the life of crime? Or do you want somebody that’s gotten the skills you’ve given them, the skills for jobs, the skills to interpersonal relationships?”
Roughly 42,000 people are jailed each year in Bexar County. Lozito said 800 of those people use the Reentry Center after being released.
The county hopes to grow that number after a slowdown during the pandemic. It’s also creating an online database to connect second-chance employers with former inmates looking for a job.
Manufacturing, warehousing, transportation and customer service are where most Reentry Center clients get hired.
Negron makes it clear she believes not everyone incarcerated should be released, and those who are may not be ready for a job right away.
“If, after our assessment, we see that they are still using drugs or not living in a stable home environment, we wouldn’t want to send that person to go get a job because they don’t have anywhere to live,” she said.
Housing assistance or a substance recovery program may be offered to that person.
The center also provides resources, such as utility assistance, parenting classes, anger management classes, a food pantry and a clothing closet.
“Someone might go to jail in the summer, and they come out in the winter and don’t have a coat,” Negron said.
The Reentry Center also provides Moral Recognition Therapy to help change a former inmate’s mindset.
“It’s common-sense things, like if you’re driving along and you see this nice house, and it’s a well-manicured lawn and all that, and you’re thinking, ‘Well, somebody’s worked really hard, and they got this place,’” Lozito said. “Sometimes criminal thinking would be -- ‘OK, I wonder what’s in that house and what to do?’”
Lozito said that the therapy is done in a classroom setting, and participants often challenge each other on their newly learned skills.
The point of it all, Negron says, is a second chance.
“I believe people can change, absolutely,” she said.
“If you give a person a chance, you won’t know until you know,” said Christin. “That’s why I was so good on the second chance.”