Doug Smith and Reggie Smith didn’t have much in common until they both went to prison. They are now deeply involved in a movement of formerly incarcerated individuals advocating for criminal justice reform.
Doug Smith (MSSW ’00) seemed to have everything going for him: a master’s degree, a passion for policy that he was putting to use at the Texas Capitol, and a family in the making. But everything can sometimes be too much. Doug, who had been diagnosed with both anxiety and mood disorders, found himself drinking to cope with everyday stress. He was under the care of a psychiatrist, who prescribed medications to treat his symptoms. Before he knew how, Doug was on four different medications, one of them highly addictive, and was still drinking heavily.
“By about January 2006 I hit a point of real insanity and that’s when I went out to the streets for drugs. I found crack cocaine, and within two and a half years of that fateful decision I had completely obliterated my career, lost my family, lost the right to be close to my child without supervision, lost the house, and was on my way to a prison because I had committed robbery in order to buy the drugs. That’s how far gone I was.”
Doug spent almost six years in prison, most of the time in the Huntsville unit, where the state carries out executions. He talks with quiet determination about this period in his life —one gets the sense that sharing the bad and the ugly is part of his recovery journey.
“I used to have a recurring dream that I would show up at social work conferences in my prison whites and try to avoid anyone seeing me,” he says as he flashes a pained smile.
While in prison, Doug decided to take any opportunity that could help with his recovery—for instance, he taught as a peer educator to change the cultural acceptance of sexual assault in prisons. During this time, he says, he learned to become a social worker in ways that he didn’t really understand before.
Doug was released on parole in 2014. He soon discovered how hard it was to re-enter society despite having a master’s degree, valuable job experience, and a family willing to provide him with housing and support.
He was under intense supervision from the parole division, which required him to wear ankle and GPS monitors, and obtain pre-approval from his parole officer for any movement—he could not, for instance, run an errand unless pre-arranged. Because of his criminal record, employers automatically rejected his job application, without giving him the chance to provide evidence of rehabilitation or even looking at his resumé.
“It took me five months to find a job, which was for $9 an hour, working at a warehouse in East Austin sorting used smartphones for sale in the Asian markets. I had to wear scrubs, because they had no pockets so I could not take anything, and I had to be wanded with a metal detector before I could leave. That was the type of occupation available to me.”
Having such a hard time reintegrating into society made Doug think of the many individuals he had met in prison who could not count on family support or higher education after being released. He eventually reached out to another graduate of the School of Social Work, Laura Sovine (MSSW ‘01), who was then the chair of the Austin Re-Entry Roundtable.
“Next thing you know, I was introduced to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit that has been working since 1999 to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the state, and I went from a $9 an hour job to lobbying the Texas legislature for reform.”
Since joining the coalition, Doug has worked on nine bills that are now law. He is also deeply involved with a larger movement of conservative and liberal groups—the Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition—that seek to change what they see as the state’s ineffective and costly overreliance on incarceration.
The Texas Smart-on-Crime Coalition has a robust agenda for the 85th Legislative Session that includes items such as raising the age of criminal responsibility so that 17-year-olds can be treated in the juvenile justice system when appropriate, decreasing the over-use of incarceration by using more effective solutions such as community-based treatment and decreased penalty levels, and increasing education and training to reduce re-incarceration.
When talking about this agenda, Doug conveys both wonky knowledge and deep passion: Off the top of his head he can compare Texas’ incarceration rates to those of other countries—“about 577 for every 100,0000 adults, that’s higher than any other country in the world”—give you the number of people the state incarcerated in 2015 for possession of less than a gram of controlled substances—7,000— and also get emotional when talking about California’s #SchoolsNotPrison campaign—check online the campaign’s “Imagine” video and see if the last image does not, as Doug says, “give you chills and make you wanna cry.”
Doug is currently under minimum supervision, which means no ankle or GPS monitor and fewer meetings with his parole officer—although he is still subject to random drug tests and must receive permission to leave the state. He will be supervised until 2023, at which point he will regain the right to vote.
“This is my own journey, but there are many other formerly incarcerated people in Austin and around the state who are advocating for reform and are making a profound impact in their communities. It really shakes everyone’s stereotypes. We are on parole, but we are productive members of society and we have something to offer when it comes to developing policies that divert people from the criminal justice system.”
Reggie Smith (BSW ’16) took the stage as class speaker for the School of Social Work’s 2016 graduation ceremony with the urgency of a man in his fifties who has discovered he has much to do. He beamed resolve as he told his peers, “If change is to be, it begins with each and every one of us. And if we don’t take action now, then when?”
Reggie knows a thing or two about change. Six years ago he was in a federal prison in East Texas. His journey from prison to the graduation stage, he says, started when he came to the conclusion that what he had been doing for the past twenty years of his life was not really working for him.
“My social work professors would ask, what was your cognitive shift?” he says looking amused. “The question used to blow me away, it does not really work like that. But when I was in federal prison I did come to the conclusion that I didn’t want my next twenty years to be more of the same. I asked myself, do I want to keep cycling in and out of this system that is brutalizing me, do I want to keep hurting my family, do I want to keep hurting my community? The answer was no.”
From there, it was uncharted territory for Reggie. He had never really lived what he calls a “square life:” he was taken away from his home for drug possession during his teens, got arrested for firearm possession the day he turned 17, and was never out of prison for more than three years until his early forties. He had no formal education beyond a GED, no job experience, and a felony conviction that would make very hard to find a job or even a place to live.
“It’s so many pieces and so many fronts when you are getting out of prison. And you have to have your mind made up, because everyday is not going to be graduation day, if you know what I’m saying. It took me five years to that one day. And so many things happened that could have thrown me off the course.”
So, what made him manage to stay on course? And how much of his journey can be replicated? During our conversation, Reggie comes back again and again to these questions as the social worker he is, trying to figure out which elements he can glean from his own experience that can help others in similar journeys.
There are of course no easy, silver-bullet answers. But three main factors start shaping up as I hear Reggie meander through his personal story with sidetracks into contrasting criminal justice systems—Texas versus California—preventive evidence-based interventions—he is a big fan of the Sequential Intercept Model—and outrage at the fact that so many people with mental illness end up involved with the criminal justice system—Harris County jail, Reggie informs me, is the largest mental health facility in Texas.
One factor was the interaction with individuals who saw in Reggie a human being instead of an ex-felon: they treated him with respect, encouraged him, and gave him the needed information to move forward. For instance, a staff member at a community college who mailed a brochure to him instead of throwing away a letter with an impossible request from an inmate in federal prison. Or an advisor who told him yes, the program to become a Licensed Chemical Dependence Counselor accepted students who, like Reggie, had criminal backgrounds. Or an English professor who praised his writing and encouraged him to join an honors program. And perhaps most importantly, the social worker at a state agency who “stuck her neck out for him” in so many ways that Reggie still tears up when he talks about her.
“I’m lucky because I have a lot of mentors, people who along the way helped me and who want to see me succeed. So yeah, it takes a village,” he says.
Another factor was Reggie’s resolve to make the most of the very limited opportunities available to him when he was released under federal supervision six years ago. He took a job—the only one he could get, through a program for people with barriers to employment—sorting electrical cords for $7.25 an hour, for a maximum of 36 hours a week and without benefits. Once he was able to leave the transitional center he was released into, his first apartment—the only one he could get because of his criminal record—was in a complex with an open-air drug market, which, as he says, was not the most “conducive to someone who is trying to stop using drugs, to stop being involved in crime.” He adds, “I had to be strong and not get caught up on that, but you know, that not always works.”
And the third factor was time.
“I finished my first six months at the job and then I got worried because I was going to school and I was going to leave the structure I had: you get up in the morning, you check in, you have your schedule. In school I’m just another student and these people are oblivious of what is going on with my life, you have to stay focused. But then you get a year under your belt and you are ok, you are invested, then you have two years invested, then you start at UT Austin, and then you have three years…”
Reggie is now a peer policy fellow for Communities for Recovery. In this capacity, he is receiving intensive training, education, and experience to advance public policy to promote substance-use disorder treatment and mental health care to divert people from jail and prison.
“There is personal responsibility, but communities have a responsibility to individuals as well. We often talk about second chances for people, but actually our communities need a second chance, our politicians need a second chance, because the first thing that they did is not working. Thirty years of mass incarceration is not working.”
When asked what is he most excited about, he does not hesitate: the Underground Scholars Initiative, a program at UC Berkeley that recruits and supports students involved with the criminal justice system.
“I want to bring this program to UT Austin. I want to identify people just like I was identified, and get them through PhD programs so they become the experts. We need to have experts who also lived the experience, they need to be at these think tanks, we need a seat at the table. There should be nothing done about us without us. That’s the movement right there.”
By Andrea Campetella. Photos by Shelby Knowles.