Leonora Walker spent years struggling with drug addiction. She had been in and out of jail and was living on the streets of San Antonio when, in 2014, police found drugs on her and she was arrested for the last time.

Walker thanks God for the woman who “snitched” on her.

That woman, who Walker wishes she could thank personally, put her on a path to recovery that led her to want to help others out of the cycles of poverty, addiction, and crime.

Walker, 43, founded FREED (Finish Recidivism through Education, Employment, and Divinity) Texas to do just that. The new nonprofit takes a holistic, one-on-one approach to reducing recidivism – the tendency to relapse into crime – by connecting formerly incarcerated people to education, housing, employment, mental health, addiction, and faith-based resources.

FREED Texas – funded by Bexar County and a federal grant in partnership with Workforce Solutions Alamo, Alamo Colleges District, and Project Quest – is accepting applications for its nine-week Turning Point program through June 4. The program accepts applications from non-violent offenders and will consider people who have violent convictions on a case-by-case basis.

Ten clients, called “scholars,” will participate in the first cohort starting June 21, and the second cohort is expected to host 15 scholars later this year.

Participants will receive $15 per hour for the Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. program where they will attend classes with employment and education advisors, life coaches, and “frontline advocates” who have first-hand experience with the justice system and can connect them to “second-chance” employers who hire formerly incarcerated individuals.

The in-person classes will be hosted at FREED’s classroom at the Alamo Colleges District’s Eastside Education and Training Center.

“We know it’s going to be a rigorous [program], we know it’s going to require accountability,” Walker said. “But we also are going to set [them] up for success.”

Once scholars complete the Turning Point program, they will be eligible for a two-year scholarship with Alamo Colleges and can continue to receive supportive services from FREED for up to a year.

FREED’s wrap-around services and stipend income approach is similar to that of Project Quest, a local workforce development initiative, which is providing the hourly stipend for scholars.

That means participants won’t have to choose between getting a job or attending the program, Walker said.

The power of choice

People who have been in and out of the justice system often have underlying childhood traumas and mental health and addiction issues, Walker said. Those issues often carry stigmas that are then compounded by the stigma associated with having a criminal record, she said. The collateral consequences of incarceration, also called “invisible punishments,” can prevent people from finding work, housing, financial aid, and – in many cases – connections with friends and family.

Throughout Walker’s road to recovery, she encountered people who helped her overcome hurdles and stay on track.

She spent her first few months in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center detoxing and largely ignoring the woman in the bunk next to her who would often read the Bible aloud.

When Walker began emerging from the detox, the woman, named Mary, asked Walker for her name.

“And it snapped for me,” Walker, who had long gone by other names, said. “I was like, ‘Where have I been all this time?’ … I really thank her. Because she started reading the Word of God to me.”

She was later transferred to Bexar County’s Mentally Impaired Offender Facility (MIOF) to address the deep-seated childhood traumas that had been causing her issues. There, a woman who monitored patients showed Walker grace and compassion.

“I started talking to the doctors, I started telling them what’s going on, I started telling them how my medicines were making me feel,” she said. “I started advocating for myself.”

Leonora Walker, chief executive officer of FREED Texas stands in the future program classroom at the Alamo Colleges Eastside Education and Training Center.
Leonora Walker, chief executive officer of FREED Texas stands in the future program classroom at the Alamo Colleges Eastside Education and Training Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

FREED aims to help others on their own road to rehabilitation by providing resources and a support system.

“We want to expose [scholars] to others, like myself and many others, that have overcome a system that was set up to set us back,” she said.

In addition to her first-hand experience in the justice and rehabilitation systems, Walker is a peer support specialist who has worked at the San Antonio Council of Alcohol and Awareness, Center For Health Care Services, and Haven for Hope. She spent five years volunteering inside prisons throughout South Texas.

“I just want to give people choices,” she said. “When you have choices, you’re no longer in a place of ignorance, you’re no longer in a place of slavery; you’re educated.”

Measuring and addressing recidivism

There are several ways to track recidivism, but some agencies across the country use a rate based on three years worth of data, noting when those released from incarceration are re-booked on charges.

According to Bexar County data, 15% of the general population that was released from custody in 2017 had been booked on a new charge within one year of their release. By the second year, that number climbed to nearly 27%, and by the 3-year mark, it was at nearly 34%.

Nationwide, the U.S. saw 44% first-year and 68% third-year recidivism rates for 2005, according to the most recent data available from the National Institute of Justice.

Mike Lozito, director of Bexar County’s Office of Criminal Justice, attributes the county’s relatively low recidivism rate to its Reentry Council, a coalition of stakeholders founded in 2008, and its Reentry Center, which opened in 2016 about a block away from the adult detention center.

“We have individual counseling rooms, group rooms, and we have some large training rooms,” Lozito said. “We invite nonprofits and other organizations to come there to provide services and then they can bring [clients] back to their organizations to get further service.”

The center partners with churches and faith-based organizations, the San Antonio Food Bank, University Health System, Advantage Life Coaching, and other groups to expose clients to available resources. It also offers classes in job readiness and resume writing, alcohol and narcotic addiction meetings, and other specialized classes.

By offering an intensive, nine-week course focused on education, FREED’s programming will further enhance Bexar County’s goal to reduce recidivism, Lozito said.

“Education is a key component for a person to be able to function, especially in today’s society,” he said. “I think Leonora understands the grind because she came from that [experience]. … I’m hoping that their model ends up being something that could be replicated.”

Aida Negron, Bexar County’s Reentry program manager, said there’s a higher motivation for people to participate in educational programming or counseling inside the jail, but when they get released, “they get so many other options” and they have to find the money for food and shelter.

The stipend for FREED scholars will likely attract participants, she said.

Silver linings

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Reentry Center has had to pause much of its programming, especially its outreach efforts into the jail and in-person classes. That work is starting to ramp back up and more employers are seeking second-chance employees as many jobs, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industry, are left unfilled.

“[Some] companies are really struggling, and they need to find workers,” Negron said. “I think they’re just … hoping to find them in our population. … We’re very grateful for that. Because in the past, it’s been very difficult for them to find employment.”

Another silver lining to the pandemic was that it highlighted a need for better safety net services like the ones FREED wants to provide, Walker said, and created “more opportunities for new nonprofits to get things going” through coronavirus relief funding.

Bexar County has allocated more than $57,000 to get the program up and running, including roughly $8,000 from coronavirus relief.

The death of George Floyd last summer and proceeding calls for police and criminal justice reform highlighted the disproportionate number of Black people behind bars, Walker said.

Despite San Antonio’s roughly 7% Black population, Black people accounted for about 17% of Bexar County’s incarcerated population, according to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative.

“There’s no question that the attention that’s being paid to criminal justice, in general, has helped [FREED’s initiative],” said Carolyn Health, the nonprofit’s chief financial officer.

The walls inside the FREED classroom have been painted bright colors and Walker plans on having an open, welcoming floor plan and design. On the turquoise wall behind her desk, a bold statement in black paint reads: “An educated FREED scholar is no longer fit … to be a slave.”

“It’s the truth: When you get educated, you get choices,” Walker said. “And when you apply those choices, you get knowledge. And when you apply that knowledge, you gain wisdom. And when you gain wisdom, you can’t be lied to – you’re no longer a slave.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org