AUSTIN (KXAN) — Laquita Garcia’s road to prison reform advocacy started in 2013, after she was incarcerated for 11 years.

“I’ve been free of all charges for nine years now, and it’s still a reoccurring issue. Employment is a huge barrier. Housing is a huge barrier. People are just not willing to allow second opportunities, and it is an extreme barrier for anyone formerly incarcerated,” Garcia explained.

When she was released from prison, a reentry program helped her get her first job, which helped her provide for her family.

“Because that program no longer exists, those opportunities aren’t available, so you’re released from incarceration and set free to do things on your own, and it’s hard to do,” Garcia said.

Garcia is now the statewide policy coordinator for the Texas Organizing Project. She sees how the lack of funding to reentry programs and services can prevent people with criminal records from getting help with jobs, housing and even ID cards.

The City of Austin’s Equity Office has recognized programming disparities and the lack of resources to help those who are formerly incarcerated. The office said systemic barriers prevent individuals with a criminal record from accessing stable housing, jobs, transportation and health care. Its new grant program is aimed at improving opportunities and resources.

“We’ve identified a few different areas of challenge for people who were formerly incarcerated or reentering from incarceration, particularly around ID requirements and the challenges of getting an ID. There are major housing challenges. Some places won’t rent to folks if you have any kind of criminal record,” explained Brandon Kroos of the city’s Equity Office.

A total of $400,000 will be distributed through two programs:

  • Hub Funding — One award will be made for $200,000 to serve as a “hub” or one-stop-shop where the reentry community can receive services necessary to assist them in reaching stability. The goal of this award is to fund an organization to provide wrap-around, holistic services to individuals who are working to achieve stability after incarceration.
  • Spoke Funding — Awards of up to $50,000 will be disbursed for entities that can provide component services in new and innovative ways. Examples include but are not limited to housing, mental and physical care, financial assistance, job and skills training and food access.

Applicants can apply online. Awards will be announced by the end of September.

“The obstacles that prevent someone from returning from incarceration and achieving stability are systemic in nature,” said Chief Equity Officer Brion Oaks. “What we seek to accomplish through these grants is to examine who is most impacted by barriers and begin to address them on both an individual and systemic level.”  

The Equity Office partnered with local organizations grounded in Austin’s reentry community to host focus groups and engage with people who were formerly incarcerated. Their findings revealed that although several organizations are doing positive work, more resources and creative approaches are needed.

“In funding organizations grounded in the expertise and experience of those most impacted, the City hopes to learn what we need to change within our own programs and services. In making these changes, we seek to go from just funding services, to partnering in transforming outcomes for individuals,” Oaks said.

The Austin Area Urban League launched an initiative called “Returning Citizens Advancement Program” (RCAP) during the pandemic. Members of the organization were noticing when people left prison during the pandemic, they weren’t getting the resources they needed.

“We structured a model that has comprehensive support and opportunities and access all looped in. Some examples of that is when they transition out, they have some immediate basic needs, a lot of times they are given a specific amount of resources to make it work. What we do is we come in, and we give them a basic necessities kit that includes some financial support to help them transition,” Quincy Dunlap, president and CEO of Austin Area Urban League, explained.

The program is described as being developed specifically to recruit and serve formerly incarcerated individuals (returning citizens) who have experienced exclusion and barriers to housing, education and employment leading to an improved quality of life. RCAP training operates in a cohort-style environment where peer support is used as an asset to keep participants engaged.

“The rate of cost for inmate incarceration every year is around $18,000 across the state of Texas. We can operate this program at a third of that, at around $700 per participant, per year. If we think of making these investments into people on the back end of their release and provide an optimal support… we can cut recidivism off,” Dunlap said.

Dunlap explained cash isn’t the only answer, there should be opportunities in housing and the workforce space.

“If we can meet those two barriers and defeat those two challenges for these brothers and sisters coming out, that’s almost 50-60% of success right there,” said Dunlap.