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In a Visit to Bonton Farms, Sen. John Cornyn Sees an Example of Post-Prison Success

The key to keeping former inmates out of prison in the future goes beyond just job placement. A legislative push federally could see more money going to programs that prove their success.
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Bonton Farms CEO Gabe Madison led Sen. John Cornyn on a tour of the operation on Thursday, March 28. Office of U.S. Senator John Cornyn

Before he toured the operation at Bonton Farms on Thursday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn met with local nonprofits to discuss what happens after an inmate leaves the prison system.

He’s repeated this with varying backdrops across the state since January, when he announced he would advance the Workforce Reentry Act. This act seeks to make permanent Labor Department grants that provide job support to federally incarcerated people, including job training and housing upon release. 

A similar act was introduced in the House last November, but is currently in the earliest stages of the legislative process. Cornyn says he plans to introduce legislation in the Senate in the next few months. Bonton Farms, which provides jobs for formerly incarcerated people and tiny homes for those who need housing, is an exemplar of the kind of programs he’d like to see receive those federal dollars. 

“The legislation we’re working on is based on a pilot program that’s evidence-based,” he said. “It’s not based on wishful thinking or a pie in the sky. It’s based on things that actually work and have been proven to work.”

Cornyn says that about 78,000 inmates in Texas are released from prison each year. Federal research shows that those who engage in job training and housing programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.

“They can’t get a job, and they can’t find a place to live, well, that’s two strikes against the person,” he said Thursday.

Cornyn’s visit to Bonton Farms included a roundtable discussion with the organization’s CEO, Gabe Madison, as well as other local nonprofits working with the formerly incarcerated—Urban Specialists CEO Antong Lucky, Volunteers of America CEO Angela King, and Community Learning Center CEO Angela Traiforos. Bonton Farms apprenticeship graduate Eddie Solis, Volunteers of America program graduate Vonesha Gates, and Community Learning Center graduate David Rodriguez also joined them.

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Sen. John Cornyn met with the leaders of several local nonprofits who work to provide training and support to inmates and formerly incarcerated people. Office of U.S. Senator John Cornyn

Each program offers supports and training for former inmates. Some begin offering that even before the individual leaves prison, something Gates explained helped her.

“This very last time I was incarcerated, I just decided to explore my options,” she said. That led her to VOA, which provided classes and support while she was in prison, which in turn gave her confidence once she was released.

“When I got out the last time, I already knew I had my resume. I already knew that I had bus passes to get to work. So there was no excuse,” she said. “I already knew I would have clothing for the interviews because they provided that as well. So I had absolutely no excuse not to become successful.”

Gates said that she now works as a virtual sales expert for a Richardson-based company. “And I never want to leave that job,” she said. “My family is so proud of me. My children are so proud of me. It feels really good.”

All three nonprofit leaders said that a successful reentry program can’t just be a job program—additional supports are needed.

“It’s not just about a job,” Madison said. “We truly believe that that is a critical part to this and that re-entry is not cookie cutter. So everybody doesn’t fit that certain mold. You have to recreate a mold based upon people’s situations.”

Following the roundtable, Cornyn toured Bonton Farms, including its coffee shop, urban farm, and tiny house village, which provides stable housing for a variety of people—including those who have been recently incarcerated.

He said efforts like Bonton Farms are exactly the ones he feels will help reduce recidivism. Since 2015, the $100 million Partners for Reentry Opportunities in Workforce Development grants have funded programs nationwide. Cornyn’s bill seeks to make them permanent but also provide more oversight and direction for nonprofits seeking them.

“There’s a lot of people who would like to help but they don’t know how to do it,” he said. What we’ve talked about is taking programs like Bonton Farms, that have been successful, and saying ‘What’s the secret sauce that actually makes them successful?’” he said. “That’s the evidence-based program that we can use for established best practices of others can copy.”

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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