Texas inmates build homes for local families
Under supervision of COs, inmates spend five hours a day, five days a week building homes
By Allan Turner
HOUSTON — Electric saws buzzed; hammers pounded. There was little to suggest much was special about the one-story brick house rising from a vacant lot on Houston's northeast side. The guys doing the building looked pretty ordinary, too.
But if you dismissed this house on Laura Koppe Road as just another house, these workers as just another construction gang, you'd be mistaken.
This house, one of more than 950 built by Habitat for Humanity in its nearly three decades in Houston, is a house of opportunity. The little house's carpenters are from the 'big house," the Vance state prison in Richmond, and this modest dwelling may prove a house of opportunity for them as well.
From foundation to roof, everything in the house is donated - even most of the labor. That's where Keenan Jackson, Michael Swayzer, Robert White, Mauro Garza and the other men in the Vance Unit's InnerChange Freedom Initiative come in. Under the watchful eyes of corrections officers, these men - all set to be released from prison within 18 months - spend five hours a day, five days a week working to make everyone's life better.
For the family who soon will occupy the house, the structure will provide clean, modern accommodations for an affordable price. The house comes equipped with appliances, a no-interest mortgage and a spacious, fenced backyard for kids. The residents have been coached on financial management and offered tips for handling the small maintenance problems that come with home ownership.
The inmate workers, according to InnerChange executive director Tommie Dorsett, are learning marketable skills - and getting a chance to repay society for their misdeeds. Since March 1998, when InnerChange teamed up with Habitat for Humanity, inmates have worked on more than 600 houses. At least 15 of those workers have found paying jobs with Habitat after their release from prison.
'Promoting a positive change'
Programs like InnerChange, said state prisons spokesman Jason Clark, "are critical to the agency's mission of promoting a positive change in offender's lives. InnerChange seeks to change the values and attitudes of offenders by building moral and spiritual foundation from within."
Dorsett said his program takes a "holistic approach" to readying inmates for release. "Ours is a faith-based program. We address moral values, education and life skills, and we follow up with the men once they're released from prison," he said.
A former parole-probation officer, Dorsett has no illusions about Vance Unit residents.
"Prisoners are pretty selfish," he conceded. "InnerChange gives them a chance to give back to the community in which they robbed, stole or sold drugs."
Dorsett said about 9.5 percent of graduates of his program return to prison. In Texas prisons overall, the chance prisoners will return for another offense within three years of their release approaches 23 percent.
Inmates from all over the state apply for admission to the Vance-based program. At present, about 320 prisoners participate in InnerChange, and applications number in the thousands.
InnerChange was founded in by Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Richard Nixon, who became a born-again Christian activist after serving seven months in prison for a charge related to the Watergate break-in. Colson died in 2012.
"I was heading down a destructive path until I met Jesus Christ," said Swayzer, 52, who was sentenced to 25 years for a Harris County robbery. "InnerChange has taught me how to lead a family and helped me to learn how to be a man. It has given me something to live the rest of my life for: doing the right thing."
Swayzer's co-worker, Garza, agreed. "It's been a blessing," the 40-year-old former oil and chemical worker said. "I was far from being religious."
Garza, who is serving time for a drunken-driving conviction in Harris County, anticipates soon being released to resume life with his wife and six children, the youngest only 8. Garza has been in the InnerChange program since spring 2012, and has worked on Habitat houses for six months.
Those experiences and his revived spiritual life have convinced him that "you are not alone. You can count on somebody," he said.
No job too small
Jerry Kovaly, who was Habitat's volunteer coordinator for construction before moving into his present position as corporate relations manager, said he can personally vouch for the value of the InnerChange program. Kovaly served time for felony theft.
"It helps focus your Christian walk," he said. "You see what life should be like."
The day begins early for inmate workers, who arrive at the construction site long before morning rush hour diminishes.
Some receive on-site training in necessary construction skills.
At the work site, inmates labor at raising walls and roof. Installation of the brick facades, landscaping and finishing the interiors are performed by contract workers.
"We build walls, windows, blue board, roof and shingle," explained Jackson, 46, who is serving time for a Harris County robbery. And after that, added White, 40, serving a sentence for possession of a controlled substance, "We pick up trash."