East Texas nonprofit hopes small loans and job training will ease the hardships of leaving prison

Maurice Watts in San Augustine on Oct. 4. After being released from prison in January, Watts received training and financial assistance from Legacy Institute for Financial Education, a nonprofit in nearby Lufkin. (Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune)

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LUFKIN — Maurice Watts pulled up to a compact, red-brick building on a recent Thursday morning, dressed in black athletic clothes and a Houston Astros baseball cap.

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He had spent the previous 12 hours driving an 18-wheeler truck for Common Disposal, a saltwater transport 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 organization that had lent him $1,350.

“I’m trying to do better than I’ve done before,” Watts said.

In January, Watts was released from prison. He had spent the past four years completing a sentence in a federal penitentiary in Beaumont.

At 43 years old and without a college degree, Watts’ job prospects were slim upon release. Reentering the workforce wouldn’t be easy.

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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 stable job as a commercial truck driver.

But Watts’ path to reentry is not one shared by the tens of thousands of other Texans with criminal backgrounds who struggle upon their release from prison. Although they have served their sentences, former prisoners often deal with collateral consequences — barriers that extend a person’s punishment beyond incarceration. Topping the list of obstacles are housing and employment. Landlords and employers often exclude people with criminal backgrounds.

“Once you cross that line into being a criminal, it’s hard to get any job,” Watts said. “Then you sit around and get down on yourself, and you have low self-esteem.”

Advocates for formerly incarcerated people have long pushed for more compassionate state policies that would simplify reentry. Among the changes they propose: automatically expunging criminal records for those who qualify and removing licensing restrictions that prevent former prisoners from entering certain occupations. But policy change has been hard to come by in Texas.

To fill the void left by state policy, nonprofit organizations like LIFE are stepping in to help formerly incarcerated people. LIFE was founded by Joseph Ceasar, a pastor who grew up in Houston and worked as a financial adviser before turning to the nonprofit sector.

Since the reentry program began last year, 26 of the 52 participants have completed an educational training or occupational skills training program. None have returned to prison.

“When you come out of prison, you’re fending for yourself,” said Kevin Taylor, who helps run LIFE’s reentry program, known as Next Chapter. “You have nothing, but you need everything. And that’s a terrible place to be.”

Doing whatever it takes 

Watts was raised by a single mother in San Augustine, one of the most impoverished 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 that town and go try to make something of yourself, you’re going to end up in trouble,” Watts said.

Watts first entered the criminal justice system on a drug charge. He was released in 2009 and secured his commercial driver’s license in hopes of becoming a truck driver. But having to indicate his criminal record on job applications excluded him from many jobs. The offers he did get required him to drive cross-country, an impossible task since he had regularly scheduled probation meetings to attend.

With each rejection, Watts receded closer toward his old life selling drugs.

“People end up with a scarlet letter after they’ve been incarcerated,” said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail 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 again, 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 to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and ended up back in a federal penitentiary in Beaumont.

A year into Watts’ second prison sentence, he decided to do whatever it takes to start over.

“I didn’t want to be a part of the street life anymore,” Watts said.

One of Watts’ first challenges upon release was money. Inmates are legally entitled to receive $100 from the state, as well as transportation to their destination. But without a steady stream of income, that negligible sum only stretches so far.

Obtaining a short-term loan is difficult for someone without a job. 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 these loans.

Some Texas cities have adopted ordinances to make loans more affordable and less risky. Only one of those cities, Longview, is in East Texas. It’s hours away from Lufkin.

Watts was lucky — he connected with LIFE through a mutual friend and the group helped him realize his ambition. The organization first had him write out a budget, then gave him a short-term loan of $1,350 to help him cover his basic needs until he could make his own money.

Watts’ next challenge was to adapt to life outside prison.

Many people reenter a world far different than the one they left. Those who have been imprisoned for a decade or longer may not know how to use a smartphone, or they may lack basic digital literacy skills that most people take for granted. Others are unaccustomed to new social norms.

Watts said he was surprised to see gay couples holding hands in the mall and women wearing revealing clothing.

“In prison, you wake up and see the same people every day,” Watts said. “You don’t see anything but concrete and a cage.”

The monotony, he said, can deteriorate anyone’s wellbeing.

From left: Kevin Taylor and Joe Ceasar pose for a portrait on October 4, 2022 in Lufkin, Texas.
From left: Kevin Taylor and Joe Ceasar in Lufkin on Oct. 4. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

At Next Chapter, Ceasar and Taylor said their job is to understand each individual’s needs. Some clients, for example, have issues with anger management. Others are anxious or depressed. Some simply need a guidepost and someone to champion their success.

Next Chapter offers soft-skills training. The program teaches former inmates how to dress professionally and navigate workplace norms.

“A huge situation [for men] coming out from prison is learning how to work with women and to understand what will cause a woman to feel threatened in the workplace,” Ceasar said.

He instructs his clients to not hold onto a woman’s hand for too long after shaking it and not stare at a woman as she walks away.

“It’s just something that nobody has shared with them,” said Ceasar.

Advocates say the state can do more to help 

While Next Chapter fills a need in East Texas, organizers at the Capitol are working to compel the state to eliminate barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Maggie Luna, who was in and out of prison on drug-related charges for about 20 years, works with the Texas Center for Justice and Equity to advocate for legislative change. She’s most focused on a set of “clean slate” bills that would expand access to criminal record sealing.

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One bill would automatically expunge records for certain people. Currently, a complex and expensive process shuts people out from expunction, a critical step to securing a job. Another bill Luna supports would expand the pool of people who qualify for expunction.

“I’ve served my time, and I’ve done the work I needed to do to become an acceptable member of society,” Luna said. “But on paper, I look bad.”

Last year, state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, introduced a bill that would automatically seal the records for certain defendants with misdemeanors. The bill died in the state Senate.

The Legislature has also considered laws that would remove occupational licensing restrictions for people with criminal records. In 2017, the Legislature created a commission to review the impact of certain penal laws. It found that mandatory licensing results in 140,000 fewer jobs annually and costs the state’s economy more than $400 million each year.

“At the end of the day, if the crime you committed isn’t directly related to the job you’re trying to do, or if enough time has passed, there shouldn’t be a blanket ban,” said Lauren Johnson, criminal justice outreach coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Texas’ Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the country’s largest prison system, has had a reentry division since 2009. It offers reentry assistance such as reissuing identification documents. From 2020-22, reentry case managers completed over 38,000 applications for birth certificates.

Prisoners considered to be at moderate or high risk of reoffending also receive individualized case planning to help find employment. During the last 10 years, the unemployment rate among former inmates has declined, and the recidivism rate has dropped by 3.6% to the current rate of 20.3%, according to a department spokesperson. That rate is among the lowest in the nation.

But critics say that as much as these reentry programs have done, they could do much more if they began earlier in a person’s prison sentence.

“People talk about reentry as a program, but it’s a process,” UT-Austin’s Deitch said. “And it’s a process that starts on the first day someone is incarcerated.”

Instead of treating people punitively, Deitch said, the state should offer prisoners the resources and programs they need to be ready for release.

Deitch also suggested that people in prison should be paid for the labor they perform. Texas is one of seven states that does not compensate incarcerated people for the majority of their work assignments, which include maintenance, agriculture and manufacturing.

When Ceasar meets his clients, he finds that the longer they’ve been behind bars, the more time they need for training and to “reprogram” their thought processes. An earlier start to reentry, or simply more time to adjust to life outside of prison, could benefit these clients.

With additional state funding, Ceasar said LIFE could offer clients a stipend while in training so that they could participate in training for a longer period of time.

Thinking about the future

Watts spends five days a week in the driver’s seat of a truck transporting saltwater. Sometimes, he picks up another shift on his day off to make extra cash.

Although the hours are long and the job draining, Watts restores himself by following baseball stats during his breaks and watching movies on his phone.

Maurice Watts poses for a portrait on October 4, 2022 in San Augustine, Texas.
Watts hopes in time to start a business with his sons. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

He also thinks about his future.

He plans to work for the trucking company for a couple more years to save money. After that, he hopes to start his own business in hot shot trucking, which involves carrying smaller, more time-sensitive loads. It’ll be a family-run enterprise with two of his sons, he says.

“I’m a strong-minded person, so once I get something in my mind 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 make it successful. But Ceasar are Taylor are ready to help.

“This is where we step in,” Ceasar said. “He’s got all the knowledge of the business, and we know how to run a business. That’s where we’ll make sure he’s on the right path.”

Disclosure: The ACLU of Texas, the University of Texas at Austin and UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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